Old Bridewell fire station now new 'super youth centre'
THE red lights of the recession hadn't started flashing back at the beginning of 2008, when plans were first mooted to inject millions of pounds into the former Bridewell Fire Station to transform it into a state-of-the-art youth centre.
It was an ambitious scheme, launched as part of the then Labour Government's "My Place" initiative to reignite a passion into the youth centre network across the country by giving communities youth facilities fit for the 21st century.
But with the start of the recession later that year, the youth workers behind the project began to fear that the great over-sized fire station shutter doors of central government funding would swiftly descend; the impetus would lose its footing on the slippery fireman's pole of the faltering economy; and the whole thing would be left to burn itself out among the ashes of all those other large-scale schemes that never quite happened across the city.
But it was in 2010, following the Labour Party's defeat in the general election that the scheme seemed most in the balance.
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"We didn't know whether it would happen or not when the coalition government came into power," explains Sandy Hore-Ruthven, below, chief executive of the Creative Youth Network, which will be the lead partner in running the new youth centre – simply called The Station, it will open its doors next week.
"There was a whole year when everything had to be put on hold, until the current Government decided it was going to continue to back the funding for the scheme, and then last year, hugely relieved, we were able to get back on with the building work."
The Station is a £5.75m partnership project, which aims to deliver a world-class, 32,000sq ft facility for all young people in Bristol, with other key partners including Bristol City Council, Young Bristol, Business West, Brook, Basement Studios & Bristol YMCA.
"The idea is that all these different agencies and charities will have a presence here," Sandy explains. "While we, the Creative Youth Network, will run about 30 per cent of the activities here, the great strength of the centre will be the combination of services we can provide to young people.
"They will be able to simply drop in here in the evenings to hang out with their friends, or get involved with creative projects, or they can get valuable work experience here, or access all kinds of help and advice – everything from issues they may have over drugs, drink, family problems, sexual health, housing troubles – it really will be a one-stop shop for them."
As the final touches are being put into place ahead of next Friday's big opening, the facilities are starting to take shape – from the music practice rooms and two state-of-the-art recording studios that youngsters will be able to use free of charge, through to the sprung-floor dance studio, the uber-cool "chill-out room" and performance space able to accommodate crowds of up to 600 people for teenage bands' gigs.
With facilities like these, it's little wonder that Sandy and his team are expecting the centre could be used by as many as 20,000 young Bristolians each year.
"It's needed now more than ever, because cutbacks mean inevitably that youth clubs around the city are being lost," Sandy says. "We want to give young people the opportunity to push forward their own potential, whatever their background.
"There is plenty of research out there to back up the idea that youth clubs offer young people transferable skills that they are not able to develop even at the best schools. Employers will often tell you they're less worried about young people's GCSE results – when it comes to employing people they're more concerned with finding those with communication skills, the ability to adapt to new challenges and the ability to work well in teams – all skills that are honed in the youth centre environment."
The new centre will feature everything from an IT Suite to a multi-faith prayer room. There will also be training opportunities for youngsters at the centre, designed to improve their chance of finding work as they leave education at the height of the worst recession for decades.
"On the ground floor we will have The Kitchen," Sandy says. "It will be a working cafe, open to the public, where young people will get the chance to develop experience of working in a professional kitchen environment.
"We also want to encourage businesses in the city to get involved – for example, we are going to have talks and workshops from the likes of Aardman animations and the BBC."
Among the thousands of 11 to 19-year-olds using the new facilities will be the 20 young people who have led the development of the project over the last four years on the consultative committee – known as the Station Drivers.
Kieran Coles, 16, of Kingswood, has been involved in planning the facilities for 18 months.
"It's good to have been involved," he says. "It's important that young people have had a say in what the new centre will be able to offer them."
Fellow "Station Driver" Jaydence Pater, 18, who has been involved in the project for four years, says: "I was even on the interview panel when we offered the £22m contract to the Creative Youth Network, so we have had a say in how the scheme has evolved every step of the way. It really will be a youth centre created with the input of young people."