The project was inspired by a vision to create a vibrant and inclusive destination in a forgotten part of York city centre, on Piccadilly. The site had a positive past as a trolleybus shed, as the Airspeed aviation factory in 1931, and then as a garage, Reynard's Garage, as it became known locally. Unfortunately it sat empty for 20 years from the mid-1990s and once it had been demolished in 2015, we passionately believed something else was possible on the land. We needed to create space for positive things to happen.
This included the opportunity for local businesses to open their first business premises in an affordable, safe, supportive, and value driven environment. It included creatives and emerging artists to have a simple and adaptable space for them to get started. We also wanted to create a progressive, diverse and inclusive space in the city centre that fostered community cohesion, fun and vibrancy.
With time likely to be limited on any land to launch, we decided that a shipping container would be our medium for a York project. This would be cost effective, easy to assemble and easy to move once the project finished. The project would be aesthetically bold and unorthodox and would deliver a much more urban edge to Piccadilly, which would allow it to attract new visitors and bring a belonging to people across York who wanted something more from their city.
We set up Spark York C.I.C - a community interest company that would have no shareholders, and would reinvest all its profits back into the scheme. Our assets would be owned by the company and not by any individuals.
With support from a range of local designers and builders, such as Unconventional Design, R Vint Engineering Ltd and PWP Design, alongside award-winning architects Turner Works, we started to design the space and consulted widely across the community before submitting planning for the scheme in early 2017, having received initial political support.
At this point, we opened up an expression of interest process with possible business occupants and were blown away with nearly 300 applications from a range of sectors from food and drink, retail and the arts in a matter of days.
After receiving planning in May 2017, we began fundraising for the project and started to select our initial traders. With support from local crowd funders and philanthropists, social investors such as KeyFund, BEF and UnLtd, and charities such as The Rank Foundation and Power to Change, we raised £600,000 to open the project in May 2018, with 23 businesses at the start.
The project has so far enabled incubation space for over 65 businesses, with 20 start-ups already graduating on to brick and mortar premises and 80 FTE jobs created for the local economy. We are also immensely proud of the facilitation of free space for over 100 community groups each year.
For every £1 of investment into SPARK*, it delivers £12.78 in additional social value.
The project is now embedded into York’s way of life as it feels more permanent as a destination and community asset that populates the city with new start-ups, jobs for individuals and 100s of hours of community give back, events and activities. We have been guided by our passion for community and locality and this continues aiding our learning as we grow.
We believe that SPARK* is a creative microcosm that works for everyone.
It has created a precedent for new ideas that allows social impact to come to fruition. While many towns and cities have vacant premises, we find that these buildings are often too long in lease tenure and the financial commitment to commit upfront at an early stage is too great. We believe that the solution to these deeper city-wide problems of shop vacancy and dereliction is by increasing successful business incubation opportunities in lower-risk, flexible environments and one where the landlord works closely in supporting the business through bespoke business support, signposting, listening and support to the next step - quite often a more permanent setting once they've had chance to test their business.
SPARK* works with partners across York in generating a thriving community that is shaped by local people. Partly, that is driven by prosperity and activity for the local economy, with the creation of new businesses and jobs. However, it is also about facilitating a space for the local community to create impact, where they have ownership and input into a collaborative space such as SPARK* that represents their values and enables the influence of change across the community.
We believe that this platform for a mixed ecology of activities best responds and encourages the needs of the local area.
Our economic philosophy has developed. We wanted it to provide the opportunities for local start-ups and businesses. Through achieving viability as a social enterprise, we have been able to provide profits to ensure vital community activities like our free hire space and food bank, while also subsidising higher risk businesses who achieve the high social impact and return on investment.
Finally, we have understood that creating a great space and being a good landlord means being hands-on. On a day-to-day level, our team is involved in the trials and tribulations of a start-up business community. Our model means that we share both the successes and failures of our tenants.
SPARK* has succeeded in transforming a difficult part of York City Centre and proved its concept.
It is these learnings which fuels us with such ambition and excitement for the chance of doing something even better in York and beyond in the future.
SPARK* is passionate about showing how its development can be a hallmark of sustainable and ethical development. A number of principles throughout our build and operations of our venue is inherent in our reason for existence and one we will continue to develop. This includes:
Utilising recycled materials wherever possible through the build, such as recycled shipping containers, recycled OSB boarding and building materials, recycled scaffolding boards and scaffolding for walkways and terraces, recycling all site waste from the build.
Incentivising traders with rent reductions and knowledge sharing to run environmentally friendly business, such as reducing consumption of energy, ensuring all packaging is recyclable, the provision of food waste services and oil recycling.
The promotion and installation of green spaces, gardens and biodiversity as a central design feature of any SPARK* site.
A comprehensive waste management programme where no waste goes to landfill, while a strong recycling provision for traders with dry mixed recycling, glass and food waste.
Using recyclable and biodegradable cleaning disposables, while avoiding toxic chemicals that may damage our natural environment.
No gas heaters or direct fossil fuels in the provision of comfort to customers, with electric and lower power options used.
Promoting active travel for members of staff across the venue and providing internal, safe cycle storage for staff.