Businessman Duncan Craft to invest more than £500,000 transforming a ‘forgotten’ listed building in Southport into a climbing gym, cafe and flexible work space. Tony McDonough reports
Londoner Duncan Craft is determined to play his part in the renaissance of Southport by investing more than £500,000 in a new climbing gym.
Located in a Grade II-listed former auction house in Lord Street, the ‘bouldering gym’ will feature climbing walls up to a height of 4.5m. Planning permission has been granted and contractors lined up. Duncan hopes he can deliver the project by mid to late 2023.
“We are not hurrying this project – we want to make sure we get it right,” he said. “I want this to be a great facility for climbers but, beyond that, I want this to be a real hub for the wider community.”
“There is going to be a cafe on the ground floor and on the top floor we will have a lounge where people can come and work remotely. We are looking at daily charges for that and memberships.”
“We would hope to get it open maybe around August 2023. Planning permission is in place, and we have been in touch with the contractors.”
And when it does open, it will be the realisation of a decades-old dream for Duncan who acquired a passion for climbing in his childhood.
“I went to boarding school in Hertfordshire,” he told LBN. “We had a teacher called Chris Holmes who would take us on weekend climbing trips to Yorkshire. I signed up because it involved missing school on Friday, but I really got into it and have been passionate about climbing ever since.”
“My family and I spent 10 years living in Chamonix, in France, in the heart of the Alps which is a great area for skiing and climbing. When we came back to the UK I decided opening a bouldering gym was something I really wanted to do.”
Duncan’s main family business is Craft & Sons. It specialises in the restoration of period properties and works across the country. He and his family returned to the UK from France in 2017.
“When we came back London and the South had become very expensive,” added Duncan who grew up in the Edgware area of North London.
“We chose Southport because it is a town with huge potential. It has amazing Victorian infrastructure. It is fashionable to knock the Victorians but what they created was incredible. They were progressive, had vision and were committed to public duty.
Southport today, explained Duncan, is a “rough diamond”. It has been allowed to decline over the years, he adds. He now believes the town is on its way back but says much more work needs to be done.
“It is not enough for businesses to work in silos,” he said. “Yes you have to build the business and make money but I think you also have a responsibility to the wider community. And I think since the pandemic we are really starting to see that happen.
“People such as Tony Howard (who is looking to create a £75m ‘leisure beach, surf wave and thermal spa’ in Southport) are leading the way on this. They see that Southport needs to capitalise on its reputation as a leisure destination and take things to a new level.
“That is important because we are seeing a decline in retail, not just in Southport but basically everywhere. It is becoming too difficult for retailers to compete with the likes of Amazon. So town centres such as Southport need to increasingly pivot towards leisure and hospitality.
“I have also been impressed with the work of Rachel Fitzgerald at Southport BID. They are providing a focal point to really galvanise the private sector to come together for the good of the town.”
And Duncan said it was critical the public sector played its part. He explained: “One of the things I learned in France was the value of the public and private sectors working together.”
“I don’t think we see enough of that in the UK. Often politicians become idealistic. And they either look upon business with distrust or dismiss the value of the public sector. We have to break down those barriers if we want to revitalise and grow our towns and communities. We have to work together.
“Just one example – nationally our country suffers from uneven transport investment. We are all paying for grand projects such as HS2 which benefits London, the home counties and a few large private contractors. While the rest of us have to endure prehistoric regional transport, such as Northern Rail which at a snail’s pace tortuously links Southport to Manchester.”
He added “We need equitable investment at a national level across the country, and in partnership with small and regional businesses – not just big. Any future prospective parliamentary candidate should make transport their number one priority.”