Perhaps uniquely, the Piece Hall values community as much as we do commerce, with our 40 independent traders representing a more eclectic, but no less vibrant force for good within our region than their forebears in the days of the cloth trade.
Needless to say, seeing these businesses closing multiple times over the past year has been heartbreaking – in much the same way as witnessing first-hand the impact that closing our own great gates has had upon our local communities and the wellbeing of individuals from near and far.
But we now have hope. It’s nearly time to welcome people back to the Piece Hall from April 12. That hope is palpable amongst our staff, volunteers, trustees and tenants, as well as the wider community.
Yorkshire has unique attributes, valuable assets and strongly determined people that will help see us not just survive, but thrive again as we all tentatively emerge from the horrors of the 12 months. Those Yorkshire assets and strength of character are reflected in our first annual review, published today, which tells the story of our highly successful trading period 2019-20.
Amongst the challenges faced, from the impact of Storm Dennis to those early months when the pandemic began to take hold and tragically disrupt our way of life, there still remained significant cause for optimism which extended far beyond our own courtyard.
Since reopening after a £22m refurbishment in 2017, we have welcomed upwards of seven million people through our doors.
In 2019-20 alone, we saw 2.5m visitors, some 900,000 above initial expectations, and welcomed guests from every continent.
Staging world-class acts such as Elbow and Embrace, and welcoming the Tour de Yorkshire, offered further proof that our region is home to the versatility and creativity needed to thrive in a new landscape.
The region’s ability to blend retail, arts, culture, heritage and tourism will be key to rebuilding and levelling-up beyond Covid-19.
Looking at the challenge faced by the retail and hospitality industries, these past 12 months, means we need to reimagine how we use our high streets and create town centres which bring communities together and create a sense of local identity.
We’re so lucky in Yorkshire to have world-class goods of the very finest provenance together with businesses which champion our regional offering.
Creating jobs and keeping hard-earned cash within in the local economy local really is a win/win situation.
These businesses are the very fabric that connects our communities and the lifeblood of our economy.
A key economic contributor, as highlighted across numerous reports including studies from the NP11, is the fact that the arts are worth some £4bn to the northern economy.
With exceptional home-grown talent from David Hockney and Barbara Hepworth, to the Kaiser Chiefs and Sally Wainwright, Yorkshire has always excelled in the arts, but we are now starting to become recognised internationally.
We must use this burgeoning reputation not only to attract new visitors to our region, but to promote the ability of the arts to enrich people’s lives across different cultures and communities.
And speaking as a custodian of the only remaining Georgian cloth hall in the world, it would be remiss of me not to mention heritage – something which Yorkshire has in spades and is intrinsically woven into our collective regional conscience.
For me, tourism is the thread that links all of these strands, underpinning our collective Yorkshire identity. The Piece Hall was built on trade and the venue is founded on ideas of resilience and reinvention.
Our cloth workers for the 21st century can be found in the form of our traders and retailers today, crafting and grafting and making a real difference.
We simply cannot be a successful economy without a thriving tourism sector, and with a likely focus on UK holidays this year, it can provide the jump-start that is much-needed and so richly deserved.
We are already in an unrecognisable place from just a few months ago, and there are significant signs that life will improve for many of us in the coming weeks.
These past months have been nothing less than traumatic for so many people. I hope we can take lessons from our experiences, and move forward with hope, kindness and a renewed spirit of optimism for what is to come.
Nicky Chance-Thompson DL is chief executive of the Piece Hall Trust and chair of Welcome to Yorkshire’s Tourism Recovery Task Group.
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