Amy Harhoff talks to Mike Hughes about the vital role of businesses as County Durham bids to become UK City of Culture 2025 and attract millions of visitors and thousands of jobs.
Get your pen out and put a ring around March 21st.
If you live and work in County Durham, you might already have done that, as it is the date you hear whether your county has been selected for the next stage in its bid to be the City of Culture for 2025.
That may seem a long way off, and maybe you think it’s not much to do with you or your business.
But the ripple effect of a win would spread through every area. Amy Harhoff, the county council’s Corporate Director for Regeneration, Economy and Growth says it would help to create an additional 2,500 jobs in Durham’s creative industries and an additional 200 creative enterprises in the county by 2029, directly supporting almost 1,000 businesses and organisations – and it will create a £41.5million spend with at least 50 per cent of contracts going to local suppliers.
A successful bid would also attract more than 15 million visitors to the region, helping to bring an additional visitor spend of £700 million and supporting the creation of a further 1,800 jobs in the tourism sector.
Amy can count on hundreds of business to back her every step of the way because they realise the size of the prize – not just a crown, but the whole kingdom that comes with it.
“For me, it’s about the celebration of our proud heritage, but looking at our prosperous future,” she tells me.
“A lot of our bid is around how we build on our industry for our sectors of tomorrow and actually using the added value that you get from the City of Culture status to really drive that forward for everyone in County Durham.
“We’ve got a lot of great assets and we really support it institutionally with our principal partner Durham University in the Culture partnership, but we know we’ve got massive challenges still across the county.
“That’s why we were really keen this year to be one of the first counties to ever put a bid forward so that we could establish that this is an inclusive effort allowing us to bring culture and industry and communities together.
“Durham city is amazing, and we shouldn’t be sorry about that. But actually it’s about how you get a bigger rollout from something that can be successful in Durham City into the broader county and involving all of its assets and venues.
“ You’ve got to have a good base that shows you’ve got the capacity and that you’ve got the cell of an area to be City of Culture, but it’s not about us saying come here because we’re already the best place. We’re saying bring this event to us because it can make us the best place.”
Amy says people understand the bid’s importance and are backing a long-term transformational prize in terms of those jobs and that investment, but also in terms of the collaborative prize of uniting a region for a common cause.
“In my job, not everything is universally supported. There are lots of different views, particularly when you’re talking about the regeneration of an economy and how we do that.
“But for the culture bid we really have had universal support which has made it such a pleasure to work on. It’s certainly hard work, but I have to say I find it a real privilege.
“Professionally we’ve got over 500 businesses that have already formally backed the bid with almost £500,000 pledged in sponsorship – and that’s before we have even got through to the short list.
“It’s for the whole region because although this is County Durham’s bid there is regional support for it. It isn’t just the businesses that we have here, it is also from businesses outside our area.
“We’ve worked really closely with the North East England Chamber of Commerce and have found support from across the North East – and sometimes that’s not easy to do on any issue but it’s happening on this, which show how universally important it is to us.”
The support needs to be from businesses as they have the influence and the assets to make a difference. But the message is clearly hitting home with residents as well, keen to support their communities. When the most recent Lumiere reached further out into the county it illuminated a passion for involvement in culture that went from one side of County Durham to the other.
Amy says: “We went out across the county doing a range of events and hearing what people have to say and we’ve got a page where people sent in ideas which went into the bid in terms of the events that we would run through the City of Culture programme.
“That was vital because it genuinely shaped what we submitted so that it really felt like it reflected the communities of the county as well as our strategic ends. So although in a way some communities and even some small businesses can’t give financially, they really supported it across the board in so many ways, and that really adds up when the SME economy is over 95% of our business base.
“It very much feels like our City of Culture, not ours as a council, but ours as County Durham.
“Our message is one of heartfelt thanks to everyone who is making the City of Culture a golden thread of what we do as a county and how we present ourselves to the outside world, who will get a sense of who we are through our businesses.”
It’s clear that although Amy’s job is often difficult and challenging because of how many people have different views on how she should achieve things for communities in the economy. But the love for culture is shining through for her and her team, who have worked around the clock to get the bid in. Hard work, but good work, and what a prize there will be at the end of it all.
There are two important places where you can show your support for the 2025 City of Culture bid.The Northern Echo