Negative positivity is, regrettably, inherent in most Aberdonians. If something’s nae bad in the Granite City, it’s probably pretty damn good. And I have to say that the Chamber’s Vanguard 2018 Conference was nae bad at all.
It was positively refreshing to listen to the presentations and the buzz they generated among the audience. None of the usual suspects took to the stage, apart from Bob Keiller who, by his own admission, is a “heavy-weight” veteran. The presenters were young (or youngish) with oodles of positivity. They love this city and they’re playing a part in its renaissance.
The focus of the event was the impact of transformational projects, the role of culture in urban regeneration and the progress being made towards our renaissance in the areas of tourism, the city centre and the regional narrative.
I don’t often leave events with a desire to write about them but I came away from #Vanguard2018 brim-full of thoughts I wanted to share.
A client of mine once said that Aberdeen has had more visions than Joan of Arc. Mike Galloway struck a chord when he said that Dundee’s reinvention came from a truly compelling vision which was consistently shared by politicians from all parties over a 15 year period. This bold, brave ambition resulted in the demolition of a swathe of the city centre and its rebirth as the Dundee Waterfront. The game-changing V&A project, now at its heart, is the latest milestone in that dream and was realised by Dundonians grasping the opportunity and making it happen. If Aberdeen had been blessed with such an opportunity we’d either still be talking about it or civil war would have broken out, with objections on the grounds of loss of something or other and traffic chaos.
Bob got us thinking about our current assets and how we could be using them to much better effect - about how investing in the communities around run-down assets, most notably Union Street, could lead to their regeneration. People are at the heart of any renaissance, he stressed. It’s people who make places, not buildings, and it’s pride we need to build more than anything. The new narrative, our positive story about the region, will help restore pride which will, in turn, lead to greater engagement in our city region’s success and a real desire to embrace and deliver change.
The concept of an “iconic attraction”, one that could transform Aberdeen in the same way that the V&A has put Dundee firmly on the map, was explored. There might not be one catalytic project in our city, at the moment, but there’s a raft of exciting developments on the horizon which, when combined, start to tell the renaissance story in a compelling way.
The Vanguard groups presented simple but effective steps we can all take towards Aberdeen’s own, long-overdue renaissance. They also literally aimed high with their cable car route to take passengers from cruise ships into the city centre.
My question at the event was how we deal with the positive negativity we face in Aberdeen, which can, on occasion, manifest itself in a deeply unpleasant negative vibe around ambition for our city, our business leaders, our local politicians and even our football club.
I still bear the scars from the last attempt to deliver a transformational project in Aberdeen. During the referendum on the City Garden Project it was virtually impossible to have any sort of meaningful debate because of the deep division and entrenched positions. This led to negativity on both sides that went way beyond our city boundaries and into national folklore. I still believe we missed an opportunity to deliver a transformational project that could have been the catalyst for the regeneration of Union Street and a cultural revolution. But, while looking back allows us to learn lessons, it won’t help us secure our future.
The same can be said about Marishcal Square. Admittedly, I wasn’t a fan to begin with, but it’s pulling people back to live and work in the city centre. Against the backdrop of the stunning refurbished Marishcal College and pedestrianised Broad Street, replete with water features and our beautifully “Poised” leopard, it’s not only confidence-inspiring and impressive, it’s providing an exciting space which is attracting new businesses, restaurants and bars. Unfortunately though, we’ve still got people talking it down.
A revived regional narrative presents us with the opportunity to unite behind a shared story and amplify Aberdeen’s voice, whilst turning down the volume on the negativity.
There will inevitably be critics of the new narrative. Even at the post-conference drinks, there were one or two critics of “Abzolutey Aberdeen”. The Aberdonian way is to sit back with arms folded and say “that’s doomed to fail”. Imagine, if instead, we collectively sit up and ask ourselves how we make it work.
It was fitting to end the conference with Derek McInnes, who succeeded in getting fans, players and staff to fall back in love with AFC. He’s an inspirational manager, the only person I’ve seen get a standing ovation at a planning pre-determination hearing and, yet, he still has to deal with that element of unpleasant negativity from certain quarters.
The parallels between the club, before Derek’s arrival, and our city were clear: complacency, harping back to former glories, not making best of use of what they had, a sense of malaise leading to losing, rather than winning. By transforming performance on and off the pitch, Derek has instilled pride, belief and ambition.
If we can fall back in love with our city and harness a positive, shared, exciting goal, we can silence the naysayers and doom merchants.
“One City, One Team, One Dream” needn’t just be the strapline used to galvanise the silent majority in support of AFC’s stadium plans. It can be a hashtag for the regional renaissance. We’re one city region, working as a team to deliver a shared vision. Let’s get after it and tell the positive story of Aberdeen in a way that’s less “nae bad” and more “abzolutely bloody brilliant!”