Big interview: Julie Finch, ceo of Cheltenham Trust - Treasuring our history and making new memories

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Written by:   | Posted 28-April-2015 8:42

Culture does matter. You’d expect Julie Finch to say that. She runs the Cheltenham Trust the new body which runs the Town Hall, The Wilson Art Gallery and Museum, Pittville Pump Rooms, Leisure@cheltenham and the Prince of Wales Stadium.

But over the last few years of economic difficulty, doesn’t culture and sport sometimes feel like a slightly luxurious extra – compared to, say, making sure roads and railway links and broadband and all that sort of infrastructure is in place for a town like Cheltenham?

Julie makes the excellent point that making sure there’s plenty to do for the people of Cheltenham – and plenty to attract tourists and people who want to move here – is as important as all that nuts and bolts infrastructure.

Julie, who has been the chief executive of the Cheltenham Trust for six months, said: “There’s massive competition between places to attract inward investment.

“If we can provide and become one of the ‘go to’ places, businesses will want to settle in Cheltenham and think about the talent they might attract and that’s the future.

“We cannot rest on our regency heritage, we have to think about an economically attractive cultural offer.

“I worked in Perth in western Australian before this job.

“And the Perth ribbon development along the coast stretches for 90 miles from end to end.

“If you’re at one end of that, there’s nothing to do, and you’re a long way away from the places where there is – they haven’t thought in detail about every place.

“There’s the beach, which sounds great, but it’s not really enough.

“Here in the UK we have a pretty sophisticated society.

“We want great schools, great cultural facilities, we want roads, hospitals, and for the Trust we have to think about how we add economic value.”

Julie’s not a newcomer to Cheltenham.

She worked in Bristol at the city council as director of the city’s museums for eight years and lived in Cheltenham during that time, and kept her house while working in Australia. And now she’s running some of the things that make Cheltenham what it is – and she’s determined to drive it forward.

“We want to make Cheltenham a great place to live and work.

“It’s quite well provisioned at the moment, a lot of towns this size don’t have everything that we have.

“If you think about Cheltenham’s history, healthy lifestyles and learning and culture have always been in its make –up so buildings like the Town hall and Pittville Pump Rooms came about and have been used in different ways.

“And Leisure@cheltenham was built when there weren’t so many private health clubs and gyms were around.

“So it’s got quite a lot, but we can’t stand still.”

Over the last year, Cheltenham Borough Council which still owns the facilities run by the Trust moved responsibility to the new organisation to allow it to raise money from other sources for improvements and developments.

And Julie says she wants the people of Cheltenham to feel a real sense of ownership over the stadiums and town hall and Pittville Pump Rooms.

Speaking in an office in the warren of rooms behind the scenes at the Town Hall, with its walls covered in posters of recent shows, she said: “We want to develop that relationship with Cheltenham folk so they see the venues as theirs.

“We can build that relationship.

“By moving these services out of council, we’re saying they’re still for the people.

“We want to encourage more people to use their facilities and really feel that it’s their place.

“We do that by making sure we work hard to engage at every level across Cheltenham with our projects and activities and working hard at relationships.

“We do a lot of work at Leisure@ working with young people, and working with clubs at the Prince of Wales stadium.

“Our job is to help people develop their skills and interests, it’s not just ‘we open the door and you come’, it’s ‘what would you like to see, and what did you think about it?’

Julie adds: “Now we have freedom and remit to develop those relationships, it takes time, but we’re very keen to listen and learn and find out what people want.

“If we’re bursting at the seams it’s a success, if you can’t fit everyone in that triggers our growth plans.

“We need to tell the story of the place so that people can see themselves in the venue.

“I led the development of the M Shed museum in Bristol which still gets 750,000 people through the door every year because they see the place as theirs.”

One of the specifics is a major scheme to improve the Town Hall.

Julie says: “We made a bid for funding for the development of it and the borough council has given us £2.4 million.

“One of the plans is to have open doors here in the daytime and the evening.

“It’s of great importance, it’s a big part of the story of the town, the winter gardens here were pleasure gardens.

“If I was to come in three years’ time I’d like to see people in classes in drama and music, in great acoustically separated facilities, people could come for coffee or lunch or tea, attend a community event, see their art displayed or visit an exhibition of some amazing internationally developing artists, so that we’re seen as being on that circuit.”

Some of the work on the Town Hall will be to improve the technical capabilities of the building – which isn’t, after all, a purpose-built concert or exhibition space.

And there is also work to be done with Pittville Pump Rooms and the sports centre in Tommy Taylor’s Lane.

But while Julie fills me in on the details she’s always talking about the big picture.

She says: “Having the Trust means we can think right across the whole thing – art sport, leisure tourism and bring the place to life all year round.

“The Cotswolds is a massive brand internationally.

“When I lived in Perth people would ask me, ‘Oh do you live in the Cotswolds?’

“And we need to make sure we know our place in that.

“The Pump Room is very interesting, it’s such a significant building, but it’s not very well known about.

“We want to bring to bear distinctiveness and identity: and let it help put Cheltenham on the map.

“I want to make it a ‘must see’ venue in the Cotswolds.

“I’m not saying it’s the equal of Gloucester Cathedral, but the Cathedral does that very well for Gloucester, it’s a must-see venue.”

I suggests that without a hugely iconic building or some spectacular natural feature, Cheltenham’s attractions have long been its cultural life, including all the festivals that are put on.

Julie agrees: “It’s a living place, so the Cathedral is the whole of the town.

“We want to have big moments all of the time.

“If this is a great place to live and work, people will want to come, and businesses will want to come.

“I don’t see culture as an island, the places we run enliven the town, but I’m thinking about Cheltenham as a whole, Gloucestershire, the UK.

“In Bristol we put on a Banksy show, and the secondary spend (in hotels and cafes and restaurants) from that show in 10 weeks was £13m.

“So if we get it right and people want to come here Cheltenham will thrive.”

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