We’ve expanded into Plymouth!

We’ve given ourselves room to grow, with part of our team now working from Devonport Guildhall: the forgotten Foulston masterpiece resurrected by RIO

Since renovating Devonport Guildhall in 2010, sustainable business gurus RIO (the Real Ideas Organisation) have given the Ker Street landmark a new lease of life, reinventing it as a social enterprise hub and community venue. Now, as part of their commitment to attract creative industries, and in particularly digital skills, to Plymouth, they’ve asked us to move in, too. The timing couldn’t be better for us, as we’re currently looking for interns and another full-time account manager to help us grow – both sides of the river.

Part of Plymouth’s future

Having recently moved to Plymouth himself, our creative director Nick Dell’anno has a firm belief that the city’s growing creative scene is fast making it the place to be. ‘We’re excited about the future of the city of Plymouth and the surrounding area, with projects like Devonport Guildhall, RIO’s digital hub at Devonport Market Hall next year and Ocean Studios at Royal William Yard, not to mention two flourishing arts universities. There are so many plans taking shape here that will hopefully result in new economic growth, and we want to be a part of that.’

New opportunities – same full-service offering

Cornwall clients, rest assured: despite our new office in Devonport, we’re proud of our Cornish roots, and we’ve no plans to leave our home county. In fact, having put in so much hard work with so many amazing clients west of the Tamar, Nick foresees the bulk of our business remaining here for some time. In the meantime, we’re convinced that having dual locations can only strengthen Voice Group’s offering. ‘In our experience, collaboration is a surefire way of producing exciting, fresh creative work,’ says Nick. ‘So now, as well as being able to offer our skills and experience to Plymouth businesses, we’ll also be looking to bring some Plymouth-based creatives in to work with us.’

Aside from adding to our list of Plymouth-based clients, we’re also hoping to do our bit to help boost the city’s creative opportunities. ‘We have much better access here to the young creative talent coming out of the city,’ Nick points out, ‘so hopefully we can help stop Plymouth losing so many young people to London and Bristol’.

There are big changes happening here at the moment, and although past efforts to boost industry in the city haven’t always been as successful as hoped, the creative industry is taking a different tactic: social enterprise. RIO are local leaders in this increasingly popular strategy, and we’re big fans of the inclusive, collaborative way they do things. They have a very clear idea on what’s going to work for projects like Devonport Guildhall, and why.

Renaissance-building

Since securing an agreement in 2007 to restore and revive Devonport Guildhall in return for funding, RIO have not only saved the neglected giant from dereliction, they’ve also helped put the whole area firmly back on the map. ‘Devonport is having a renaissance’ says Jenny Bishop, RIO’s marketing manager, referring to the continued housing developments springing up in place of ageing post-war estates. ‘If you only regenerate with houses then the area empties during the day, creating the same problems Devonport had before – you need economic activity to keep people here. With projects like this, we create jobs and space for business, and we’ve brought in more’.

Besides the artisan bakery and café (worth a visit for the sourdough bread alone) that’s opened downstairs in the building, Jenny points out, there have been a few more businesses opening up in the surrounding neighbourhood. It’s an indicator, she says, that people want to live and work here again: to stay here, spend money and support the economic microclimate in Devonport – another reason why they’ve brought in teams like Voice Group. ‘We want to connect people, put some fun back into business, and see them thrive’, says Jenny. ‘We rarely do things on our own – we believe things have a better legacy through collaboration.’

The Guildhall's beautiful neoclassical architecture was designed at the end of the Regency era by John Foulston, to mark the importance of Devonport as a town independent of Plymouth
Devonport Guildhall’s beautiful neoclassical architecture was designed at the end of the Regency era by John Foulston, to mark the importance of Devonport as a town independent of Plymouth

A new chapter

As for Devonport Guildhall itself – if not the entire area – this latest chapter is a long-awaited turnaround to its sad history. With the imposing four-pillared facade, an ode to classic Greek architecture by Plymouth’s famous Victorian architect, John Foulston, it’s clear that Devonport’s past has been rather more illustrious than many might believe.

Before 1823, the town had been known simply as Plymouth Dock, but upon outgrowing its parent settlement in both size and wealth, local officials requested the town be renamed to reflect its greater stature. King George IV agreed, and in 1824 Devonport duly had both a new guildhall and its neighbouring tower erected to celebrate.

The decline of Devonport began in 1914, at the start of the Great War, when it was amalgamated with the neighbouring towns of Plymouth and East Stonehouse, drawing residents and business away from the docks. The naval presence remained, but by the end of World War II, most evidence of Devonport’s former prosperity lay in ruins. In a cruel twist of irony, Devonport Guildhall may even have played an unwitting part in the destruction of its Georgian and Victorian surroundings, with some believing it may have been spared due to its prominent appearance, a clear marker for German bomber crews. Since then, it has variously functioned as a glove factory and wrestling gym, gradually falling into disrepair. Happily though, today’s multi-purpose incarnation, completed in 2010, aims to include just about everybody.

Community spirit

As champions of social enterprise, one thing the team at RIO are especially keen to stress is their opposition to gentrification: flooding the area with money, simply by enticing the wealthy, with those on lower incomes gradually priced out of the neighbourhoods. Instead, their mission is to implement a sustainable business model for the building, which would not only make it relevant in the 21st century, but enable it to support the existing Devonport community: giving local people a space to pursue new opportunities, cultural or commercial.

RIO are keen to draw a distinction between their projects and what’s going on at the nearby Royal William Yard: luxury housing and upmarket bars, designed as a way for the city to cash in on its architectural heritage. ‘We’re keen to avoid gentrification,’ says Jenny. ‘The homes being built around here are a mixture of social-rented, shared ownership and private. We’re not about shifting people away from where they think is their home – we have to have some corporate function to fund the project, but it’s made for the community. You see the kids from round here playing on the steps outside, and that’s great because we want them to feel like it’s their building. We’re just custodians of it.’

This isn’t just positive PR spiel from RIO either, like you might get from a more corporate arrangement, and they’re about to revisit the community with some more market research, in the hope that they can better tailor their offering. It’s clear the project means a lot to Devonport as well as the guys at RIO, and we’re proud to be a part of it, too.

Call us at the Voice Group Plymouth office, on 01752 710 911