The hive of cultural activity that is Hamilton House. It has been such a success that it’s now hard to imagine the local area without it. Central to the revitalisation of Stokes Croft has been the conversion of this long-derelict office building into the rabbit warren of artists’ studios, dance studios, social enterprises, music agencies, alternative therapists and community groups.
There has always been confusion between the place and the project. Just to reiterate: Hamilton House is the building, the organisation that manages it is Co-Exist, a group initially set up in 2008 by volunteers, but now with over 24 part-time paid staff. As Kimberly Rogers, Co-Exist’s Operations Manager and Director explains it has been all entirely self-funded. “We tend to just break even each year. Because we’ve had a one-year rolling lease here we’ve not been able to apply for significant grant funding – they require security of tenure on premises. We’ve always had to funnel back into the business what we’ve made ourselves.”
But after nearly a decade of steady growth, the future of the project is now in question. Last year the owners Connolly and Callaghan intimated they were looking to sell Hamilton House. Co-Exist have always aspired to buy it outright and put together an offer of £3.5 million. It wasn’t accepted.
Rogers is keen to point out that Co-Exist has a very “open dialogue” with Connolly and Callaghan. “The project wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for them. It was a collaborative partnership from the get-go.” Nevertheless, with grim inevitability, property developers are circling over what is a prime piece of inner city real estate. Hamilton House has been listed as an asset of community value with Bristol City Council which means that for six months no-one else can bid for the building other than an eligible community interest group (ie someone like Co-Exist). That asset lock expires on 16th May.
So Co-Exist are currently putting together a £5 million purchase bid that will include a mortgage, a community share offer and crowdfunding campaign. What happens over the next few weeks could determine the future of Co-Exist and perhaps Stokes Croft itself. Certainly, the sale of the building would be a devastating blow to the cultural community that has developed in the neighbourhood over the last decade.
Of course, many other cities have gone through the same depressing cycle whereby artist-led regeneration raises the profile – and value – of a locality and thus authors its own demise at the hands of big money, but Rogers is confident that Bristol can, in this case, buck the trend and manage gentrification so the residents and artists benefit, not London-based property speculators. “We’ve met some councillors and they have made it known that they’re supportive of what we’re doing. They recognise the value of the culture that’s here, the fact that it brings tourists to the city and the fact that if it was suddenly swept away it wouldn’t reflect well on Bristol.”
That said, the group are still covering themselves and investigating a possible plan b. “We have been exploring potential new buildings. We could start a whole new regenerative project elsewhere, perhaps somewhere out of the city. It’s not off the table as an option. But there is not a lot of space like this available.”
In the meantime, the share offer and community funding is their preferred option to secure Co-Exist’s long term future. Rogers is confident that they can achieve the £5 million target. “It’s really ambitious, but I feel like the general energy of Co-Exist is ‘yes, we can do it, we’re going to try our best to do this’”.
For more information about Co-Exist, Hamilton House and the upcoming share offer and crowdfunding campaign go to the website.