Middlesbrough – on the ropes or fighting fit?
11:38 05 January 2011
Theres fighting talk down by the old docks. Yet another headline-grabbing piece of research recently emerged with their town at the bottom of the heap - this time a BBC-backed report highlighting Middlesbroughs vulnerability in the face of the economic downturn and looming public sector spending cuts.
The Boros been here before, but its movers and shakers are, understandably, on the defensive.
The towns PR machine kicked in quickly with threats about an underdog that was ready to bite back. It talked of education facilities so new they have not been included in outdated surveys, a digital media industry that is years ahead of rivals and a green energy base that will supply the rest of the UK.
Whats more, it professed itself more grim in our determination than all the negative headlines put together.
The towns leaders - elected Mayor Ray Mallon is usually first in the queue - are clearly not going to take it lying down, but just how many more times can one town be knocked out and left apparently lifeless on the canvas?
This vibrant town had explosive growth in the Industrial Revolution, prompting Gladstone to dub it an infant Hercules. Middlesbrough then put itself at the heart of Britains chemical sector (remember a certain Imperial Chemical Industries ICI?) and then recovered from its decimation with yet more determination to find other economic avenues to pursue.
The trouble is that historically, many of these avenues seem to end up as
run-down cul-de-sacs, leaving Middlesbrough folk a little more battered each time, even if they remain unbowed. Flagship projects such as the Middlehaven regeneration of the former docks area have had false dawn after false dawn, with Middlesbrough FCs Riverside Stadium standing lonely for years.
Now at least it has Middlesbrough Colleges stunning new building as a near neighbour, and work is in evidence nearby on the Riverside One flats, offices and retail and leisure development.
Construction is the focus of Andy Preston, 44, one of a new breed of defenders of the Middlesbrough faith. He grew up in Acklam and made his money as a hedge fund manager in the City of London.
Having chosen to return home to the region, Andy has developed a range of property interests, mostly under the umbrella of Green Lane Capital, which he runs with his brother, Christopher. These include a 2.5m transformation of what was Kirby College, in Linthorpe, into 21 apartments, and the refurbishment of 35,000sq ft of currently disused industrial workspace in Skelton, East Cleveland.
Mr Prestons interests are wide - he also chairs the regional committee of Fairbridge, a charity supporting disadvantaged young people aged 13 to 25 that has its base just a few streets from Green Lanes offices in the
swanky Boho One complex near the railway station.
Hes remarkably frank about the uphill struggle facing the town and the wider region, as well as the decades of inertia and well-meaning mistakes.
We are in a recession now, but we have also been through an unprecedented global construction boom, from the mid-1990s to 2007, that largely passed Middlesbrough by, and thats a crime, he says.
Mr Preston believes some major treatment is called for. I believe in positive thinking and talking things up, but if youve got cancer, you should also go and see a surgeon, he warns.
There are lots of things that can be done, but there is no one silver bullet thats going to solve Middlesbroughs problems - there are lots of silver bullets that need to be fired.
Unsurprisingly for a property investor/developer, he sees a key role for the provision of quality business accommodation close to Middlesbroughs heart in helping to create a virtuous circle to help pull in top-notch retailers, restaurants and other leisure providers. This would, he argues, all help to make the town a more attractive proposition for residents and visitors alike.
Mr Preston hints at some major projects in the pipeline, with significant personal investment backing up his conviction. He also points to Middlesbroughs bid for city status in 2012 as an important springboard to put the town at the heart of regeneration for Teesside, citing the example of Newcastles pivotal role at the centre of Tynesides reinvention.
With a population of about 140,000, Middlesbrough is one of the UKs largest towns. Teesside is also the largest conurbation in England that does not have a city at its heart. The Queen is expected to declare new UK cities to mark her diamond jubilee in 2012.
I feel hugely positive - theres an opportunity to build a 21st century
city, almost from scratch, says the visionary father-of-two.
Sharing this positivity are lovemiddlesbrough and visitmiddlesbrough.com, websites that embody the towns collective approach to talking up its strengths. They are a must-sees for visitors looking for ideas on what to see and do in and around the town, as well as places to shop and eat.
For example, running until November 21 at mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art) is High Kicks and Low Life - a chance to see more than 50 works from the British Museums collection of Toulouse-Lautrecs art.