22 February 2022 — Writing
What if…?/Annan – what happened next?
A LOT of water has passed down the river Annan since the Dumfriesshire town it gave its name to was a hub of Victorian commerce. Now, the relics of a more prosperous past can feel like a burden to a community thinking about regeneration.
When local citizens met with architects on the ‘What If..?’ project early in 2020, discussion quickly turned to the once grand Central Hotel, now a boarded up eyesore between the railway station and the secondary school. Lynne Russell, teacher of History and Social Subjects at Annan Academy, says: “Kids see it outside the school and think: ‘What is there for our future? I can’t wait to get out of this place, it’s so run down.’”
Reclaim the space
There are hopes of bringing the building back to life in community ownership, but architect Andrew Piggott on the ‘What If…?’ team took the discussion in another direction by suggesting that people focus on the area around the building first. Use the former grand entrance as a stage, add seating and create events. Reclaim the space.
Lynne Russell says: “What the architects did was to give us ideas. It doesn’t have to be something that costs millions that you employ someone to come and fix, you can start doing it yourself. Bypass the bureaucracy that seems to be holding things up and bring people to the building, show what could be done.”
The initiative was on hold during the pandemic, but now the Central Hotel is once again the focus of attention. “A group has been set up and is starting to get people organised,” Lynne says. “The aim is to get the building fixed and start using it for the community, but that will take a long time, in the meantime there are things we can do to start claiming the building back. That wouldn’t have happened without ‘What If…?’”
By focusing on citizens’ hopes and wishes, ‘What If…?’ seemed to prompt not unworkable daydreams but very practical ideas, like that of Ben Pool, a senior school pupil, who suggested that local young people could help Annan shopkeepers clean and paint their shopfronts as a way of restoring pride in the town.
Lynne says: “Covid stopped us doing it straight away, but I still want to get a group of young people together to go out and make links with the community and carry on Ben’s idea. It’s about showing potential as well: the area might be a bit run down but you can still do things with your life.”
She believes that, forced to spent more time at home during the pandemic, Annan residents began – as many people did – to consider their local area in a new light. New initiatives, such as a history festival, started up in 2021, and when two foot bridges across the river were washed away in storms last autumn, local residents immediately started a pressure group to have them rebuilt. “Maybe the pride that people have in the area was there before,” she says. “But this has spurred people on, it has brought the community together.”
Meanwhile, Annan’s harbour development officer, Alan Thomson, another ‘What If…?’ participant, is moving forward with a big development project. Annan Harbour Action Group has secured funding to buy a semi-derelict warehouse which they intend to turn into a community hub, cafe, museum, a workshop where young people can learn traditional boat-building skills and a bunkhouse for walkers and cyclists.
He says: “At the time of ‘What If…?’ we were commissioning a feasiblity study. It helped us with some of the questions we should be asking – asking ourselves, as well as the professionals. Then we had to do the community consultation during lockdown, and we had a much better understanding of how to do that after ‘What If…?’”
He says: “At ‘What If…?’ people weren’t afraid to talk about the problems [of the town], but also the good points. You don’t know what you have until somebody with a fresh eye comes and points it out. Once we’ve got the building up and running, we’ll be able to put in place some of the things which were talked about in ‘What If…?’”
Image by Bash Art Creative, taken in 2020 during the initial workshop in Annan.