Hastings: the sporting and cultural entrepreneurs reviving a troubled town

This is a case study featured in our seaside report. Click here for the full report page

Might a stupendous subterranean skate park be the catalyst to revive a troubled Sussex seaside resort? Building on existing infrastructure, entrepreneurs in Hastings are plotting a new entertainment and arts-led direction for the town once dubbed Costa del Dole.

Few towns have symbolised the plight of British seaside resorts like Hastings. While the Home Counties have prospered, the East Sussex town lagged the socio-economic indicators: according to the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation, it’s the most deprived town in the south-east of England. Divorce, unemployment and teenage pregnancy, the rates are all above the national average.

In 1997, the town hit a low point when 14-year-old Billie-Jo Jenkins, who arrived in Hastings with her foster parents to escape a dysfunctional home in London, was horribly murdered. The media dubbed Hastings “Smack City”, “Costa del Dole” and “Britain’s Suicide Capital”.

Almost two decades on, there’s also – whisper it – a hint of optimism in the air. Thanks to a group of energetic entrepreneurs, a couple of far-sighted local officials, a clutch of free spirits, and a chance meeting between a young shop-owner and a local charity worker, Hastings may just be turning the corner.

David Kowitz, founder of Indus Capital, and his wife Sarah moved into an imposing manor house in the nearby Fairlight hills in 2002. They hadn’t intended to become cultural patrons of the town, but were drawn in when the Hastings International Piano Competition (HIPCC) lost its long-term sponsor and found itself struggling for funds. Originally the Kowitzes agreed to put in £10,000 for two years, but Sarah became hooked.

“Hastings felt like a forgotten place,” she says, “in terms of cultural life, it seemed to have lost its ambition.” Neither she nor David describe themselves as entrepreneurs, but they do have an influential network and they know how to mobilise talent. Driven along by Sarah’s energy, the HIPCC has been restored to former glories – it now draws world-class musical talent and is one of only eight sell-out events a year at Hastings’ White Rock Theatre. Well-heeled folk from the Sussex hinterland are returning to Hastings for classical music nights as well as the Jerwood Gallery, which opened in 2012. In 2015, the Oscar-nominated film director Mike Figgis even spent several weeks in the town to make a documentary about the HIPCC.

The Kowitzes don’t seek the limelight, and David took some persuading even to talk about his contribution, but they’re just the kind of catalysts that such seaside towns need. One successful local entrepreneur describes them as “a high-achieving family who’ve thrown themselves into the Hastings community.” Yes, their money is valuable, but just as important are their vision, can-do attitude, marketing nous and connections. David: “I come from an American east coast Jewish background. There, you’re brought up to help your community, you all pitch in.” Coastal resorts, he says, just can’t afford to be defeatist; they are, literally, on the edge.

If Hastings’ revival continues, it will in some ways be rediscovering an ingenious past. In 1923, John Logie Baird transmitted the first shadowy television images from a workshop at 21 Linton Crescent in the town; the first official television broadcast was made three years later. The town is still a world centre for companies in ultra-high vacuum photonics and optics.

Raised in Bexhill, Ian Casselden owns and runs five specialist manufacturing companies in the area, and employs 70 people in Hastings alone. The large manufacturing companies may have departed, but his Interface Devices is typical of the high-quality small and medium-sized companies that remain. For him, Hastings’ biggest challenge – indeed the one that faces many remote communities – is that the skilled workforce is ageing and needs renewal, yet the local schools – many of which are in special measures – just aren’t producing the talent required for the roles. The new Sussex Coast College, as well as the Brighton University spin-off specialising in digital and broadcast media, are the first, baby steps on a long, hard road back. “Hastings just need to aspire to bring itself up to the norm,” says Casselden.

Will it, can it become a place where entrepreneurialism thrives? When the economic recovery kicked off in 2011, the only East Sussex town that actually followed the national trend in new business formation rates was Hastings; the rest of the county couldn’t keep up. Today, businesses in the town have markedly better survival rates than the national average: 45.3% survive for more than five years, vs 41% nationally. Part-time working levels are high. Small signals, maybe, but perhaps the town’s weather-beaten individualism is turning towards entrepreneurial endeavour.

In the summer of 2013, Marc and Rich Moore were looking for new warehouse space for their booming bike and skateboard retailer, The Source. In The Royal Standard pub in Hastings Old Town, Marc bumped into Esther Brown from the White Rock Trust, a charity that manages the tatty though still elegant seafront area. Knowing that the trust had access to storage, Marc started asking questions, particularly about the old swimming baths under the seafront promenade, which had lain empty and derelict for years. Marc and Rich had long thought it would make a great skate park.

The site, Esther explained, was a particular problem for the council; so much so that they were considering spending millions on gutting it. Marc knew straight away this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Within a week, he and Rich had visited the site, discovering that it was even better than they’d imagined: 50,000 glorious sq ft of subterranean Victoriana and art deco underneath the town’s promenade.

Events moved fast, and the brothers started putting together their proposal for the site’s owners. Designs were drawn up, the brothers got references from local business groups.

The Moore brothers may be young – Marc was born in 1984, Rich in 1981 – but they’ve got plenty of supporters. And their creds in the BMX and skateboarding industry are awesome. They were brought up in Bexhill-on-Sea, whose Bexhill track makes it the unlikely home of British BMX and skateboarding. The boys were BMX fanatics from an early age. After school, Mark went on to become the world number 3 racer. Rich dabbled as an analyst at Exxon Mobil, before moving onto BMX magazine as a writer-photographer.

In 2003, they opened their own outlet in Bexhill. “We had so many product samples we’d been given for magazine reviews that we had to start a shop,” smiles Rich.

Today The Source is based in an old church beneath a railway bridge on Hastings’ Braybrooke Terrace. It’s vaulted, atmospheric and slightly shabby. Really, it’s the marketing shopfront for a very slick online retailer – sourcebmx.com and sourceskate.com – that does about £2m of annual sales of BMX and skateboard kit. The two brothers also own a sister company that supplies 200-plus UK BMX shops, and have their own in-house BMX bike brand. Anyone who’s anyone in skateboarding and BMX racing knows The Source.

At the beginning of 2015, after two years of planning and negotiation, their plans for converting the old White Rock Baths into The Source Park were finally signed off. It’s a huge moment for Hastings. Work is now under way to create the largest subterranean skate park in the world – and the only serious one by the seaside.

The Source Park will have room for 600 standing spectators, who’ll create an intense, close-up velodrome atmosphere at events; there’s room for 3,000 more to watch on giant screens on the nearby, also recently refurbished Hastings Pier. There’ll be retail space, coaching programmes for kids, and the Moores reckon they’ll create 30 jobs in total and “re-establish a positive relationship between local young people and their local heritage.” Early estimates reckon the park will bring £2.8m of new economic activity to Hastings. Farewell coach tours; welcome a new, young audience who probably haven’t visited the town before.

The Moores are planning to host at least one international-standard event per year at the site; and, again, because they know the sponsors and rock-star riders through their existing business, they stand every chance of making it happen. The equivalent Simpel Session event in Talinn, Estonia, is a three-day spectacular that sells thousands of tickets, gets more than one million log-ins to the live feed, and hundreds of thousands more viewers for the YouTube clips. “The UK is crying out for something like this,” says Rich. And critically, because the action takes place underground, it’s not a seasonal business.

The project has been an impressive collaboration between Hastings District Council – it’s secured £1m of European and Coastal Communities funding, as well as a loan against future rental income, to bring the derelict site back up to shell state – and the two entrepreneurs, backed by HSBC, who will fit it out and take a ten-year lease.

How it’ll go down with the local population remains to be seen. Hastings, like many seaside resorts, has a distinctive demographic profile: ageing, not ethnically mixed, often resistant to change.

You find this writ large down on the Old Town’s stony beach, home to the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in Britain. In the Middle Ages, fishermen here were granted the right to fish forever, for free. It’s created friction to this day, says the local Fishermen’s Protection Society. “It is a clash between a working community occupying a large section of valuable land – the Old Town beach – and the landowners, developers, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and council officials controlling the affairs of Hastings in the last 200 years who have coveted that land.”

Hastings was a crucible of workers’ struggle in the Industrial Revolution. Robert Tressell’s 1914 Socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned” – was set in the town and still sells well in the council offices. Sadly, during the 20th century, ragged trousered defiance morphed into ragged trousered welfare dependency.

Edgy and alluring, people come to Hastings to do their own thing. Many artists and eccentrics have been drawn here by the light, the air, the magical narrow streets, the radicalism. The illustrator Quentin Blake has long had a double-timbered house in the Old Town. Paula Yates, the tragic model-entertainer lived there, too. The controversial artist Dinos Chapman, brought up in Hastings, says it “figures quite a lot in my nightmares.”

In recent years, they’ve been joined by many creative entrepreneurs. Craig Sams and Jo Fairley, co-founders of the Green & Black chocolate brand, led the way, making their home in Hastings Old Town in 2001. Their award-winning Judges bakery acted as an anchor company, encouraging other creative and craft businesses to set up shop. Fairley, who’d also been a successful magazine editor, invited her media friends to visit. Most were smitten, writing glowing articles about the hip, gritty resort they’d “discovered”; some even relocated. Soon the town was littered with journalists and commentators talking up their own book. Little wonder that property prices today are soaring.