THE recent Voice 07 social enterprise conference in Manchester featured a presentation from the West Kilbride Community Initiative.
Its story is one of an incredible transformation ? from being a place of "community depression" to being named the most enterprising place in Britain.
The small North Ayrshire town has a population of around 5,000 people and 10-15 years ago seemed in a state of terminal decline. More than 20 of the town's shops were shut and boarded up, anti-social behaviour was rife and in an event that seemed to symbolise the despair a local girl was found murdered.
"There was a sense of community depression," explains Maggie Broadley from the town. "People didn't go out as much and seemed ashamed of the town."
This was in marked contrast to the West Kilbride of a few years earlier when it had been a bustling town of independent traders.
"We're not unique. It's a pattern repeated up and down the country. Out of town shopping developments are opened and the nearby towns pay the price," says Maggie.
Members of the local community knew that something had to be done but it was difficult to know what. At a public meeting in 1996 it was agreed that the town should try to tap into the growing tourist market in North Ayrshire by developing a specialist area to regenerate the town centre.
The example of Wigton ? Scotland's national ?book town' was cited ? and someone suggested ?crafts'. Given that there was no particular crafts heritage in the town or craft workers already based there, it seemed a somewhat strange suggestion.
The idea behind the craft and design town project was to provide affordable studio accommodation for designers and producers to create a focus for craft and design – while also regenerating the town.
The project envisaged the transformation of 12 redundant shops into studio, display and sale space for craft workers, and the refurbishment of the disused Barony church as a centre for exhibitions.
The aim was to revitalise the town centre as a focus for niche retailing, conserve and enhance the local architecture and attract visitors into the town.
With a business plan in place, the initiative set about finding funds to buy up the empty shop units and transform them into studios.
This took time to develop so the community focused on the setting up of an environmental group. "It was able to buy a disused quarry and set up composting and wormery projects," says Maggie. "It then started to improve the look of the town which went from having 30 hanging baskets to 300."
The initiative's first funding success came from an application to a charitable trust, the Moffat Trust, which resulted in a grant of £ 95,000. This funding was supplemented by more grassroots activities such as second hand furniture sales and sponsored events, but also paved the way for larger, successful funding applications.
One of the key parts of the initiative was to attract high quality crafters from outside the area to set up business and live in West Kilbride. "We didn't want to rely on small, local hobby crafts," says Maggie Broadley. "We've been able to attract really high calibre designers and craftworkers with international reputations."
Products now produced in the town range from gift objects such as cards, beads and pottery to one-off commissioned pieces from highly renowned designers.
An initiative centre has now been opened to become not only a point of community news and information but also a retail space.
An additional gallery space ? part financed by sponsorship from Air Tricity and the British Nuclear Group ? is used to showcase key crafter and artist's works, including visiting exhibitions. The gallery also generates funds through rentals for alternative uses, and the shop receives commission on goods sold.
Four new studios are being refurbished, which will mean nine in total and 14 new businesses have been attracted to the town, resulting in 20 new jobs.
Maggie Broadley who now works as the craft and design town's development officer says there is a real buzz about the town: "The whole community has contributed to the success of the project. Everyone has shown so much passion and commitment."
Ongoing plans include the transformation of the Old Barony Church ? a community landmark ? into a multi-purpose arts and conference centre. The success of the West Kilbride Community Initiative was recognised last year when West Kilbride was named the UK's ?capital of enterprise' in a competition run by the DTI. Trade and Industry Minister Alistair Darling said: "West Kilbride has embraced a real ?can do' attitude to successfully regenerate its town centre, helping to transform the whole community.
"The craft and design town is an excellent example of our national enterprise spirit, and a worthy winner of Enterprising Britain 2006."
More details at: www.westkilbride.org.uk.