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Friday, 22 August 2014

New chapter in Blencathra success story

IT’S the success story with a happy ending that no one predicted.

Deep in the midst of some of Cumbria’s most beautiful countryside is Blencathra Business Centre.

It’s a scene a million miles from the usual vision of inner city business parks but one which has catapulted a diverse range of Cumbrian businesses into the limelight.

Success story after success story comes to light as you move from unit to unit.

The vision of the then-West Cumbria Development Agency (WCDA), even those who masterminded Blencathra will happily admit that the end result of all their investment and hard work is far from the blueprint that kicked it all off.

Built on the site of the old Threlkeld Quarry near Keswick, Blencathra Business Centre consists of 24 units occupied by 18 businesses employing 82 people in an area where jobs outside the usual tourism scope can be hard to find.

Amazingly for a collection of cottage industries, start-ups and artisan craftspeople the centre as a whole contributes a massive turnover of more than £6m to the Cumbrian economy.

And things are about to get even bigger.

Packed to overflowing and with some of the existing businesses desperate to stay on site but expand their operations, WCDA’s successor Britain’s Energy Coast subsidiary Energy Coast West Cumbria (Properties) Ltd is investing £400,000 of its own funds to double the centre’s capacity.

The money matches a £400,000 contribution from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and will be used to construct eight new industrial units providing 857sqm of additional accommodation.

Planning consent for the development has already been granted and Defra has pledged a further £20,000 per year of support to enhance the site, including its prioritisation for rural superfast broadband.

Business centre manager and Britain’s Energy Coast inward investment manager Ray Patterson said he expected construction on the extension to the centre to begin next year.

The success of Blencathra has not gone unnoticed further afield.

Farming minister Jim Paice used the centre as a backdrop for his announcement of a £3.5 million investment in a Cumbrian Rural Growth Network back in August.

He toured the site’s facilities and met with some of the entrepreneurs now looking forward to expanding their businesses.

Photography and design business Walker Ellis was one of the success stories showcasing what the centre has to offer.

Offering a unique combination of photography and graphic design services under one roof the hi-tech business was one of the first to open at the fledgling centre 20 years ago albeit as a sole trader photographic firm.

Co-director James Walker remembers how the picturesque surroundings, risk-free contracts and low rents provided the ideal foundation on which to anchor the growing company.

“When I first moved in as the third or fourth business on site they were still building the second phase of the business centre,” says James. “They’re now looking at building the fourth phase.

“One of the primary reasons for choosing Blencathra in the first place was the flexible conditions and the low rents – it was everything that a young business needs. There were no long term contracts. If it all went wrong we just needed to give a month’s notice.

“On top of that was the support we received from what was then WCDA and now Britain’s Energy Coast. Their advisors were also on hand to help whenever we needed it.”

“I’ve got no regrets about the decision.

“A lot of our clients are based in offices, often on factory sites. We don’t have the flashy glass and steel offices of the middle of Manchester or London. What we have are great views and a fantastic environment.

“There’s also a perception that because we’re in the middle of a rural area we’re somehow remote from the rest of Cumbria. In fact we’re geographically central for all of Cumbria and just 15 to 20 minutes from the M6.”

Walker Ellis are also trialling a new 4G mobile connection and reaping the benefits of blisteringly fast connections. Three months into the trial, the company behind it Everything Everywhere is beginning to roll out the new network across the country. It has already had a positive effect on Walker Ellis’s business.

“We’ve really noticed the difference,” says James. “We deal with a lot of large files going back to our clients for approval or being sent back from locations across the country.

“I uploaded a 3GB file the other day. It took an hour and 41 minutes on the 4G network. If that had been 3G we’d have been looking at four to four-and-a-half hours. The landline could have taken us all day.

“A lot of rural businesses are really struggling for good broadband connections but files just get bigger and bigger and demand faster connections. We’re really lucky here that we don’t have those problems.

“It means that our company can keep up with technology which is particularly important in a business like ours which handles very large file sizes on a daily basis.”

Walker Ellis’s neighbours at Blencathra Business Centre are a diverse mix of businesses.

They include cleaning and janitorial services, speciality food firms, caterers, software developers and even a paragliding equipment store which is now diversifying into other extreme outdoor pursuits.

“This is a real grass roots success story,” says Luke Dicicco of Britain’s Energy Coast. “A beautiful setting in the heart of the Lake District and one great business story after another… but even we have to admit that what we’ve created isn’t exactly what we first envisaged.

“We thought that Blencathra would be a magnet for rural service industries like mechanics repairing farm machinery.

“What we’ve ended up with far exceeds our wildest dreams. Now we’re full of successful firms that are using the quality Cumbrian brand to take locally-produced products to a national and even international marketplace.

“The likes of Classic Deserts are a real inspiration. This is a firm that has grown and grown over the years and it’s fantastic that we’ve had a chance to play a part in that growth.

“They started out in one unit, quickly outgrew that so added another, then another. Our expansion plans will allow them to grow even further. Someday they may well move away to even larger premises but that’s what we’re all about... giving fledgling companies a chance in life.

“It’s a wonderful place to work. The surroundings are out of this world, a far cry from our usual vision of business centres.”

While Britain’s Energy Coast are quick to highlight the growth of their tenants and the subsequent boosts to the Cumbrian economy, those same firms lavish praise on BEC and its predecessor WCDA.

One of the main reasons behind the expansion has been the continued success of Classic Desserts who now occupy four units at Blencathra and are looking to expand further when the new units come online.

The fledgling cake making business was started by chef Alan Armstrong with his wife Julie 17 years ago. Their quality cakes were soon in vast demand and the company moved into Blencathra Business Centre, once again thanks to the low-risk terms and competitive rents on offer.

“BEC have been fantastic landlords,” said managing director Alan. “They’ve been there to help and advise us and back us as we’ve expanded.

“As we’ve needed more space they’ve helped us and now they’re fitting our requirements into the expansion at Blencathra.

“It’s a great place to work from but it’s also key that we’re close to the M6 for transport links.”

Director Ben Shamash adds that Classic Desserts now has been growth ambitions and is targeting the high end retail market.

“Things are very exciting here,” says Ben. “As a company we’ve been through quite a growth process and there’s more to come.

“We’re selling our products to big food service groups and even a major pub group and now have 25 employees who are our biggest asset. We spend a lot of time in training because this is a highly skilled industry and we have a very good staff turnover rate.

“Our location is very important to us because the next step is to build on the Lake District brandings.”

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