However, as Wales industrial output decelerated before grinding to a halt in the 1960’s the docks suffered a seemingly slow, painful and lingering death. Indeed, for those of us who grew up in Cardiff in the seventies and eighties Butetown represented a place of desolation; run down, bleak and best stayed away from.
This makes its transformation into an upmarket, trendy hotspot replete with top end penthouse apartments and five star hotel all the more remarkable.
And at its heart – the Wales Millennium Centre (WMC).
Large windows on the front of the building spell out verse, in Welsh and English from Wales’ Poet Laureate Gwynedd Lewis, In These Stones Horizons Sing. At a cost of £106 million WMC was opened to be the home of the Arts for both the city and the Nation at large. The new abode for seven of the main artistic bodies in Wales such as the Welsh National Opera and Academi, it has also become a leading venue for major touring productions from Miss Saigon to Billy Connolly.
In 2006 it was the only European venue to host Wagner’s Ring Cycle, an event that sold out in 4 hours and attracted an audience from around the globe to the Centre.Without a doubt it’s global recognition which WMC seeks.
Bet Davies, Head of Communications at the Centre told me that the vision for the venue was to be “A cultural landmark, representing a new, self-confident Wales”. When asked whether she felt they were living up to such a bold ambition the answer was unequivocal, “Yes, the Centre has already become an international icon for Wales”.
She has a point. Not only has WMC featured prominently as a backdrop in television programmes such as Dr Who and Torchwood, it’s also the primary focus for Visit Britain’s marketing strategy for Wales, targeting in particular, the USA.
In the coming year, strategic alliances are being sought with some of the major arts venues of the world including The Met in New York and Sydney Opera House.Indeed, the link with Sydney is an interesting comparable. Davies pointed out “The long term aim is for WMC to do for Wales what the Opera House has done for Australia.”
Lofty ambition this may be and it has to be said that the cold and windswept January morning that chilled the hands and tested the waterproof qualities of my jacket was about as far removed from the blue skies and warm air associated with Australia’s largest city as it’s possible to get.
Nevertheless, similarities with Circular Quay do indeed exist. Be it the cosmopolitan feel you get from the international cuisine, the ice cream parlours comfortably adjacent to pubs and the obligatory Starbucks or the WMC itself which, like its Sydney counterpart, casts a striking presence above the locale.Of course, such bold ventures come at a cost.
The £106m spent on the Centre is part of a £2billion plus spend on the development of the area since the hugely controversial flooding of four hundred acres of mud flats with the Cardiff Bay Barrage in 2001.
That in itself was, and in some quarters continues to be, a highly contentious act. Whilst the creation of a fresh water bay where the flats used to be was undoubtedly the catalyst for the major development that has followed, it also caused an ecological outcry from conservationists over the loss of an area of major ornithological significance. To pave the way for developers, the deprived areas around Loudon Square were marginalised by the creation of a new boulevard, becoming a ghetto hidden away from the new wealth by large walls.
There is also the matter of such large quantities of tax payer’s money from the relatively limited coffers of the Assembly being spent on such a small part of Welsh life, with figures in excess of £500m the conservative estimate.
In recent months, the WMC has itself endured a certain degree of controversy over the issue of public funding. In October 2007 it was revealed that the Centre risked insolvency over debts in the region of £13.5m. This threat was alleviated due to a settlement with the Welsh Assembly that secured the centre a significant increase in its subsidies, raising levels from 6% to 23% of its income. As to whether it’s right that the Government should subsidise them to this degree Davies is forthright in her view. “If Wales is to succeed as a nation it has to invest in its national institutions,” she said “The new subsidy puts us on a par with the Lowry in Manchester. Southbank and Barbican receive over 50%.”
Her view is endorsed by Professor James Foreman-Peck of the Cardiff Business School whose 31 page report concluded that increased subsidy to major Arts venues has a tendency to actually aid a local economy.
More generally on the overall public spending of the Bay Development over recent years, local property developer Peter Ballantyne, MD and co-founder of St Padarn Properties, asserts the view that without this commitment from the public sector the area would have further declined and the major national investors would have stayed away from Cardiff, the knock on effect being that the city would have suffered. “Without it the National Companies wouldn’t have come and developed 12 and a half square kilometres of prime waterside property,” he said, inferring that Cardiff would have been indelibly burdened by its industrial decline as opposed to the revitalised, visionary city that today self-labels itself the fastest growing Capital City in Europe.
Furthermore, the drive to create a new look waterfront with its tourist friendly appeal and architectural projects like WMC that strive for iconic status is what’s putting the region on the global map, a fact that can only be positive for the long term outlook for the city. Cardiff Council reported in April 2007 that tourism had increased by more than 11% since 2001.
Whilst the hosting of high profile events such as the FA Cup Final will have played its part, it’s no coincidence that this increase has occurred on the back of the Bay’s facelift. Additionally, renowned American travel experts Frommers.com have made Cardiff one of their thirteen must visit destinations of 2008, billing it a modern “cosmopolitan city that retains its ancient Welsh heart,” going on to add the “astounding Wales Millennium Centre holds court in the revitalized waterfront, breathing life into the culture and cafe scene.”
Certainly the impact of the redevelopment can be felt throughout the city. Speaking to a quantity surveyor for one of the prominent National Housebuilders he said that the local residential market was driven by the Bay’s explosion of apartment living, a fact born out by the increase in similar projects in the more traditional suburbs.
The city centre has followed suit, office blocks have become apartments, hotels have become more refined to compete with the Bay’s St David’s Hotel, the Brewery Quarter is a central venue for eating and drinking to rival Mermaid Quay while the £535m St David’s 2 project will add further shopping and living opportunities.
And the Bay continues to expand. Ballantyne told me the council has already green lit plans for more development of the Century Wharf residential complex as well as a new hotel and commercial units. Other major projects, the £700m International Sports Village and a new stadium to be shared by the cities professional football and rugby teams complete the picture of a city that has yet to tire of desire to change.
Whether such growth is sustainable and whether Cardiff will really rival Sydney one day, only time will tell. Davies asserts that the WMC represents “a beacon for the Wales of today”. It’s most certainly a representation of a city desperate for recognition on the world stage.
Cardiff developed its Bay under the cloud of controversy, evicting wildlife and the less privileged elements of the community with casual ease. Whatever the rights and wrongs may be what is certain is that things won’t go back. Davies is right. WMC is a beacon of today’s Wales. That it attracts shows from around the world, that it’s enticed 1.8 million visitors is indeed a reflection on how where once the bay thrived on sending the world its wares, today it gets life from bringing the world to Cardiff.