3rd Sep 2019 in Business
With planned regeneration, a landmark development and an influx of students, times, as they say, are changing within Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, providing an opportunity to build on the growing success of the area.
And, Destination CQ Business Improvement District (BID) Chair, Paul McErlean is conscious that the BID will be at the heart of discussions to support the businesses, cultural and arts organisations, residents and visitors in this vibrant part of the city.
Whilst deeply involved with the BID, Paul is there as the Chair of the Cathedral Quarter Trust that has backed Destination CQ from the very start.
“We were one of the pilot projects to come out of here in Northern Ireland on the Business Improvement District side as a trust initiative,” Paul explained.
“From the start what we were keen to do was to make sure that the stakeholders or levy payers, as they now are, got their absolute best value from their presence in the Quarter,” Paul said. “Any money that they were going to spend through the levy was for the best interest of them and the Quarter together.”
For Paul the idea that the fabric of the area and its identity as a unique part of the city as well as somewhere businesses thrive involves careful consideration.
“Striking that balance has been a key thing. The BID and the Trust are about balanced development and the promotion of culture and arts.”
However, despite the high-profile work of Destination CQ in lobbying, representing interests and being a voice for the area its success can be measured in more ‘janitorial’ activities.
“It’s relatively unexciting work,” he said. “It’s cleaning up, it’s security, it’s making the place a better place for staff and for visitors, and for customers
“Some might see the profile of the BID as some exciting shiny thing, but it’s not. The BID is there to service.”
Paul understands that these measures, and the likes of the ISL Waste deal, the CQ Clean Team are about organisations getting value for money from the levy.
“People are expecting to get results for their levy,” he said. “Money is hard earned, and it’s precious, so we’re very, very conscious that everything that we do is for the betterment of the levy payers and the quarter itself.
“We know that this means we have to try varying what we do. It’s about supporting festivals, it’s about assisting the services, like bin and refuse collection and street cleaning.”
Paul is acutely aware that the initiatives liaising with police and other agencies is as a result of issues affecting everyone in the city.
“It’s also about security because we’re having some pretty serious issues in the city centre now with petty crime, drug use and some of the things you just don’t want on the streets of Belfast.”
With that in mind it is clear that the re-development comes with the foundation of what Cathedral Quarter represents.
“It is a one of a kind with a unique and wide-ranging for a BID in the sense that it’s leisure, culture, arts,” Paul said. “The other ones very much centre around retail in Belfast.
But that doesn’t come without issues.
“It makes the work more challenging in the sense that we have to satisfy all of those here. We’ve got Belfast’s main Cathedral in the area, we’ve got the university expansion emerging in the area, as well as new proposals, such as the Tribeca development, and associated student housing. All of which is a long way from where it was in the recent past.
“The whole notion of Cathedral Quarter really came about because it was underdeveloped and undervalued,” he said. All the way through the 70’s and 80’s it was the poorer part of city centre, the most rundown.”
The seeds of its re-development came, as an indirect result of that period as rents were relatively cheap compared to the rest of the city.
This led to innovators to look at the area in a new way.
“The people who really gave the place a start were people like Willie Jack, Barrie Todd and Nick Price.”
“It was also seen as a neutral space in the city centre and the most historic part of the city, with the cobblestone streets and the original pathways of the old city that exist in the best form in Cathedral quarter
“Plus there are the original alleyways and streets of old Belfast, of 1700s Belfast and that’s pretty special for any city.”
Paul, as chair of the Cathedral Quarter Trust and Destination CQ, has been there since the start of the process and Business Improvement District.
He explained why: “I’ve been interested in my city, and I’ve always been interested in this part of the city because it’s the oldest most historic part.
“My business [MCE] has always been here and so that was another reason.
“And we were also pretty deeply involved in the regeneration of the city through our work with the Merchant Hotel, with our work with what is now Tribeca Belfast but acting for a number of the previous owners.
“So we’ve had a professional interest while being based there, and I have a pretty deep personal interest in it as well, so whenever the original organisation of the Trust was called the steering group, some of the large groups reached out to some of the businesses and said, ‘We need you to be a part of this group’.”
The essence for the 10 years Paul has been involved is collaboration, something that has seen the likes of Culture Night pioneer the growing night life in the area with the private, arts, culture and public sector all working together.
“It is a really brilliant collaboration between a number of key groups in the quarter, including the Trust and over the years the Trust has taken it over and managed it and that now puts the Cathedral Quarter in a brilliant shop window.”
Paul believes that the Cathedral Quarter, and indeed across Belfast, will need more residents living in the area.
“Belfast has got way too low a number of residents,” he said. “When you get low numbers of residents you don’t have life on the streets 24 hours a day, or even 18 hours a day and if that’s the case then you’ve got potential crime.
“City centres should be bustling places. And you need to live in the city centre in order for that to happen.”
There are environmental benefits.
“It also puts less pressure on the transport system. You live in the city centre you don’t need to commute.
“You don’t need to be driving a car alongside forty or fifty thousand others every morning, sitting in the traffic.”
“What you want is for things to be close and for things to be close you need to live close to them. A big challenge for us all is to make this an attractive place to live and one of the ways we can make this an attractive place to live is for cool things to be going on.”
With Paul’s company MCE Public Relations based in the Cathedral Quarter, he is of the strong opinion that the success of the area and each and every organisation in it lies in good marketing.
“whether you’re a public sector organisation, private business or an Arts organisation, everyone has audiences and unless you are working very hard, very creatively and using all the tools and platforms that are available to you then you’re not communicating your message well enough.
“I think some organisations here are spectacularly good at that and they are the very successful. So, I certainly think that we work hard at marketing generally as a whole across the area.
“That’s part of what the BID’s doing; creating a platform to allow people to get their message out.”
With the essence of the non-exciting work married with innovation Paul believes that they BID will need to continue to be on the ‘front foot’.
“We have to be creative and foster creativity and innovation,” he explained.
“Too many people say to themselves that’s the way we’ve always done it so we are going to keep doing it this way, when every organisation needs creative thinking and innovative thinking about how you do everything.”
Paul concluded by stressing that this applies to the entire fabric of what Cathedral Quarter is
“I’m not talking about businesses only here. I’m talking about the Cathedral, the university, social housing organisations, charities, arts organisations, and all its occupants”
“We have any amount of opportunities for creativity and innovation in how we deliver it would be great if they can all be followed up.”