Investing in Chesterfield

PUBLISHED: 15:34 04 April 2013 | UPDATED: 21:23 05 April 2013

Investing in Chesterfield

Investing in Chesterfield

Mike Smith investigates the town's plans to aid entrepreneurs and improve its leisure facilities

The motto on Chesterfields coat of arms is Aspire, which is not only a punning reference to the famous crooked spire of its parish church, but also an indication of the aspirations of the town and its entrepreneurs and innovators. Chesterfield has a great track record in this respect: it was the base for the Robinson Packaging Company, whose products included innovations as diverse as the first disposable nappy and the tube for Smarties, and it was the final home of George Stephenson, the great pioneering railway engineer and inventor, who lived at Tapton House from 1838 to 1848.

While engineering the first railway line from Derby to Leeds, Stephenson discovered a rich seam of coal in a tunnel he had constructed for the line. He quickly persuaded local entrepreneurs to invest in setting up a colliery, which became the Clay Cross Company, a huge coal and iron concern, and it was this new business interest that prompted him to move to the town. Contrary to popular belief, it was Stephenson, and not Sir Humphrey Davy, who came up with the first design for a miners safety lamp, which he demonstrated one month before Davy unveiled his version.

Before learning of Chesterfield Borough Councils exciting aspirations for three of the towns prized assets, I set out to discover how todays innovators and entrepreneurs are being helped at two purpose-built Innovation Centres. These contain rent-a-desk facilities and business suites where new businesses can innovate and grow. The centres have meeting rooms and there are kitchen and washroom facilities on every floor. Tenants are offered business and technological assistance, as well as office and administrative support. One of the centres is at Dunstan and the other is at Tapton Park, inspirationally located in the grounds of the very house where George Stephenson lived.

Sue White moved into one of the business incubation units at the Tapton Innovation Centre eight years ago when she set up White Media, a business specialising in wedding shows. She told me: When I first saw the centre, I knew it was perfect for me. Its location on the summit of a hill made me feel that I was going up in the world, and I deliberately chose a unit with a view of the archway that leads into Tapton Park, so that I could look at it each day and remind myself that I was opening a door into an exciting new world.

White Media was established by Sue when she courageously took on the daunting challenge of arranging a large wedding fair at Pride Park, despite her only previous experience being the organisation of a very small show. Convinced that there was a niche in the market that she could fill, Sue poured her considerable drive, energy and ambition into organising more shows, but only after carefully fishing in the pond to see what was already being offered. Eight years on, she organises very successful shows throughout the East Midlands and has a business with a five-figure turnover.

Ever ready to take on a new challenge, Sue re-mortgaged her house five years ago in order to launch White Weddings magazine. The publication has proved to be a great success and is distributed at John Lewis and Debenhams, as well as at White Medias wedding fairs, where brides-to-be are also given pamper bags and holiday vouchers. As Sue says, My business premises in here may be small, but Im big out there.

After talking to Sue, I moved on to a meeting with another person who is equally full of drive and ambition. Amanda Serjeant manages to combine the task of being a mother of two young children with the responsibilities of being a subject head at Highfields School in Matlock and the challenge of being the executive member for leisure, culture and tourism for Chesterfield Borough Council. Enthusing about two projects in her council portfolio, she said, We have received an Arts Council grant that will allow us to make important improvements at the towns two theatres and we are hoping to build a brand new sports centre at Queens Park, which will help in our drive to promote activity as an essential part of a healthy lifestyle.

The existing Queens Park Leisure Centre, which was built in 1968 and has been progressively extended over the years, has an enormous swimming pool, a learner pool, a large multi-purpose sports hall, various fitness and activity suites, several squash courts, outdoor pitches, a crche and a caf, which all adds up to a provision that is popular enough for long queues for admission to be a problem at times, but the building has a very inefficient layout and is even more inefficient in terms of energy use.

Expanding on the reason for the proposed investment of 8.5 million in the erection of a brand new centre, including a contribution of 2.5 million from Chesterfield College, whose students will share the new facility with the public, Amanda said: The existing building is showing its age and lacks the facilities of a modern leisure centre. In partnership with the college, we aim to change all this and provide a new centre that meets the demands and expectations of the local community, is cheaper to run and provides an impressive post-Olympics legacy.

Asked to define what she means by a post-Olympics legacy, Sue said, I would love to see physical activity becoming a way of life for everyone. Id like children who attend swimming lessons at the centre to be given a free swim during the week so that they might become regular users of the pool, and Im keen to encourage doctors to refer people with health problems so that they can be given appropriate exercise programmes. Its also important to target all sections of the community.

Amanda is equally keen to give everyone access to culture and was pleased to tell me about the councils plans to put a 495,000 grant from the Arts Council to good use. The Pomegranate Theatre, which is the oldest civic theatre in the country, will get improved seating and new digital cinema equipment that will enable it to supplement its own productions with film performances and live broadcasts of major productions from around the world an inspirational development dubbed as cinema for theatregoers by Amanda.

Last year, Chesterfields other, larger theatre, the Winding Wheel, staged two particularly ambitious productions of their own in the form of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Blood Brothers. Planned improvements to the auditorium, the stage and the backstage will enable the theatre to put on yet more high-quality productions. A further enhancement will allow the main hall to be used for studio performances and there will be much better access from the changing rooms, bringing particular benefits for artists with impaired mobility.

All these improvements will be carried out over a five-month period in 2014, with one theatre always remaining open. In the meantime, a full programme of events for April includes My Life in Words and Music by Suggs, the former Madness frontman, at the Winding Wheel and The Pitmen Painters at the Pomegranate. The latter production is an acclaimed play that tells the story of a group of miners who learned to paint and eventually produced art that found its way into prestigious collections a story of aspiration and inspiration that seems particularly appropriate for Chesterfield.

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