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7 days in Penzance

March 25, 2016
Harold Goodwin
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You gotta’ love towns like this, working class, with a few quid in its pocket and some gaudy jewellery, but proud of its roots and not afraid to show it. Fronted by the faded grandeur of homes and businesses, that don’t quite live up to the promise of the wide promenade and the Jubliee Pool, these give way quietly to working piers, boatyards and the railway station…a real life, gritty and unashamedly working town…no artifice here, prime real estate given over to function.

But even so, tourism weaves its spell here. Taking a walk around the town, tiny alleys and lanes dip in and out of sight as we walk down the hill from the wonderful Penwith Community Development Trust (PCDT)  through Morrab Gardens revealing beautiful quiet streets with obvious wealth, in the form of stunning period second homes and holiday lettings, sitting quite comfortably alongside slightly umkempt town houses divided into flats and quaint ‘chocolate box’ cottages.

The door to the gorgeous Penzance School of Art is open, revealing a lone student at work in a beautifully lit, high ceilinged room. Were we disturbing her? Too polite to say yes, she allows us a question….Is local housing an issue? Yes, but a shrug of the shoulders says something more….it is just the price to be paid for living in a beautiful part of the world colonised by visitors for large parts of the year and where everything seems to only be valued from that perspective.

Calling into some travel agents to see it from their perspective we enquired from one whether there was any antagonism from local people about ‘outsiders’ buying up homes, ‘not really’ was the reply, ‘although some people, mostly local fishermen, wouldn’t be too happy, but who did they think would buy their fish”.

As a group we are being hosted in the Penwith Centre by Manda Brookman of CoaST  to take part in a residential week for our MSc in Responsible Tourism under Prof. Harold Goodwin of Manchester Metropolitan University.

We have already spent two days in London listening to Martin Brackenbury, Ruth Holroyd and John De Vial speak to us about ‘Leadership’, what it means, what it can look like and the types of leadership the tourism industry will require, if it is to manage the significant change, which is surely on the way, as we head into uncharted waters in terms of visitor numbers, climate change and global terrorism.

Our trip to Penzance is more focused on destination management and how tourism can be perceived as a positive or negative and we are here to meet with those who would bring our learning so far to life, real people, living real situations.

What do you do when you believe standard economic thinking distills the value of your hometown into pounds, shillings and pence…into costs and benefits, profit and loss…into an assett to be sold or rented out, and very often to the lowest bidder. What do you do when you think this is fundamentally flawed. Most people just give out about it, some people can be quite vocal about giving out about it, but a very few sit-down and actually do something constructive about it. We come across these people occasionally and they always impress with their passion and alternative solutions, but it is very rarely we come across two such people in a single day who epitomise this thinking, Today was one of those days.

Rachel Martin spoke to us about setting up Pop Up Penzance in June 2013 because they thought ‘someone should do something about the dismal empty shops in Penzance’ and knew they could be an opportunity to bring new and fun activities into the heart of town. These empty units also were a focal point for negative discourse about the town feeding into a downward spiral. The sheer breadth of activities that were utilizing these empty spaces, or ‘opportunities’ as they saw them, was indicative of their willingness to think outside the box and included …ping pong for senior citizens…arts competitions….pop up fish shops…interactive Christmas plays….mini film festivals, and the list goes on. In the main, these provided a social function, bringing the community together to use something we have allowed our planning authorities to rob from us, our main streets.

She also queried how we look at tourism by laying out in black and white a very simple but effective chart. Two columns, one for her and one for her ‘second home owning’ neighbor and listed all the ways they contribute to the area. Her column was very long and included a broad range across social, environmental and economic themes, ‘Charles’ the next door neighbor contributed in only one way, financially……It did beg the question though, if we can afford it, should we be allowed to buy our way out of our environmental and social responsibilities as visitors to a destination, but it is also not good enough of us to assume that the visitor is abdicating their responsibility through choice…we, who live there, must challenge them to contribute more before we rush to judge. Participation is after all a two way street.

Rachel was followed by Kate Jamieson from The Front Room, a truly humble and inspiring young woman…imagine a cafe where you get a ‘Buy one, get one free coffee’ after neatly cleaning your dogs’ poo. Where disco balls glint in the garden and leopard prints decorate the ladies bathroom and where the tenth stamp on your loyalty card means you’re not the one getting a free coffee, instead, a donation is being made which contributes to the wellbeing of the homeless. It might seem a bit odd – and maybe it is – but that is what makes this place stand out from all others. And its all the more remarkable because this is a two-way transaction, not only does Kate have to commit to it, but her customers also have to buy in for this to work, and it seems they do. The Front Room isn’t just a normal café, it might be best described as a quirky and social enterprise, not just chasing the money, but actually contributing to the local community and pushing us to stretch our concept of what a local economy could be.

Both our speakers were asked why they had begun what was surely a brave and lonely journey….their answers were the same,  spoken quietly and utterly without conceit;  ‘it was just the right thing to do’.

Many people see only the problems, but a few have the courage to roll up their sleeves and just do something about them. Today we were privileged enough to hear from two of them.

Cillian Murphy; Melvin Mak; Hannah McDonell; Crista Buznea; Arzu Özenen

Penzance, Cornwall   16.03.16

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