Last week saw the first Derby Diplomat session of 2015. We hold six of these short courses each year. Attended by people who live or work in Derby, they are aimed at providing an insight into what makes the city tick and to identify its future development options.
Diplomat day starts with a presentation and regeneration walking tour - the very same we provide to investors coming to town. This is followed by tours around the likes of Derby Arena, the intu Derby shopping centre, Denby Pottery and Rolls-Royce. Each session ends at the Council House with a presentation from the Mayor.
We now have almost 200 Derby Diplomat graduates, ably suited and booted, armed with a bagful of narrative to go out and act as ambassadors for the city. Reflecting on last week, I feel the context for the 2015 version has changed in two main ways.
First, on the walking tour, the considerable construction under way at the moment is quite striking, with schemes rising out of the ground in places such as Castleward, Full Street and Cathedral Road. Add to this completed projects, such as the Magistrates' Court redevelopment, the Shot Tower and Derby Arena and there is a distinct sense of a new chapter in Derby's development being opened.
Related is the second point, the city's new master plan, launched last month in MIPIM by Derby City Council leader Ranjit Banwait, and currently under consultation. The master plan has adopted a particular focus on developing the central area between intu Derby and the Cathedral Quarter. Intu is an undoubted success story, attracting an astonishing 25 million visitors each year and supporting the employment of 3,000 people. After some difficulties, the Cathedral Quarter has finally found its mojo and its historical streets are now packed with independent operators, unique to Derby.
Someone recently put it to me this way: people come to Derby for intu, people come to Derby for the Cathedral Quarter, but almost nobody comes to Derby for the bit in between. This includes Riverlights, Albion Street, the Audley Centre, Osnabruck Square, Becketwell, the Market Hall, Market Place and Assembly Rooms - most of which despite some gems, is under-performing and in serious need of investment.
The ambition is to create an offer that significantly improves all the above areas and, in doing so, develops the St Peter's Quarter as a destination of choice in its own right, with the added advantage of better connections in the city centre.
There is no simple solution or quick fix, and interventions will certainly range from minor upgrades to radical surgery. The important thing is that the debate has now been opened and people have been asked to pitch their views.
As part of this, Marketing Derby is hosting visits from investment and development companies in order to get their take on the art of the possible. We are especially interested in those with a track record in complex urban regeneration schemes, delivered together with local authorities. Walking around the city with diplomats or investors is always an interesting way of getting a new perspective.
An example follows a recent walkabout with a meaty investor based in London and having only ever changed train in Derby before. Having spent a sunny afternoon wandering around the less-than-salubrious back streets of Becketwell, avoiding too much eye contact with some of its more edgy characters, he asked me to stop on the Strand. His observation was telling. He said the quality of the Strand and character of its premium independents would not be out of place where he lived in Chelsea. he then asked me to turn around and look to see how close the old Debenhams building was, a mere 100 metres or so.
"People in Derby see this as a blight and major problem", he said. "I see it as a doable opportunity whose time has come."