In recent years, the UK south-eastern coastal county of Kent – a stone’s throw from London – has established one of the country's liveliest arts and culture scenes. New communities of writers, sculptors, painters and musicians have been joined by businesses in commercial creative sectors such as advertising, graphic design and marketing services, drawn to the low costs base and high-speed rail access to London.
This influx of creative talent has been accompanied by a flurry of new business creation and arts infrastructure development. The new Turner Contemporary modern art gallery in the seaside town of Margate was opened in 2011, and has since drawn three times the number of visitors that were forecast. In Canterbury, the Marlowe Theatre and Folkestone’s Quarterhouse theatre – which was redeveloped by the city at the cost of £26.5m ($42.6m) – has gained a reputation for attracting Londoners with its comedy evenings.
It is estimated that, overall, the exhibitions, performances, visitor attractions and numerous festivals held across the region attract 1 million new visitors every year. “A mixture of philanthropic, private and public investment in the arts has been a huge boost to tourism, helped draw money out of London, stimulated new small and medium-sized enterprises and given us a more competitive FDI product,” says Kent county council leader Paul Carter.
Mr Carter believes that having a compelling arts and culture offering is not only central to building a successful visitor economy but important to persuading high-value inward investors that Kent is the right place to be.
Two years ago, Kent was dealt a massive blow when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that it was selling its campus in Sandwich, a town in the east of the county, and cutting its staff numbers. Mr Carter led the recovery and found new owners for the site, private consortium Discovery Park.
The new owners pledged to take advantage of the site's new Enterprise Zone status and local tax breaks by attracting high-profile science companies to it. Now, nearly 1000 advanced science professionals work there, with the owners forecasting the creation of a further 2000 jobs over the next few years.
“We have now got a cluster of world-class commercial life sciences businesses, a super-quick rail link to London, one of the world’s biggest offshore wind farms making Ramsgate a renewables hub, and airline KLM recently announced twice daily short-hop services from Manston airport [in north-east Kent] to Amsterdam’s Schipol airport and its global connections. A good cultural offering is now as central to investment attraction as skills and infrastructure," says Mr Carter.
“Highly paid and highly educated people have high expectations for the arts, culture, sports, entertainment, high-end restaurants and, of course, great schools and leisure opportunities for families. Our product keeps improving.”
In Folkestone, local businessman and arts philanthropist Roger De Haan is developing a 120,000-square-metre mixed-use site at Folkestone Harbour. The masterplan envisages homes, leisure, retail, arts, culture and commercial facilities being built on the harbour.
“This is a once-a-century opportunity to do something very special, so we are seeking a development partner that shares our vision and ambition," says project spokesman, Trevor Minter.
Meanwhile, development is still taking place in Margate, spurred on by the success of its new art gallery. The local authorities have earmarked a prime hotel development site next to the Turner Contemporary. Dreamland, a seaside amusement park, which has a preservation designation, will soon be back in business and officials are increasingly confident that the capital will be found to refurbish the Winter Gardens theatre and conference facility, a rebirth that would add further zeal to an already lively arts scene.