It started pretty simple but generally unheard of: a shopping centre looking for a way to entice a younger clientele to visit, a demographic most often pushed away from public centres. A decade ago, Forestside Shopping Centre decided to take a leap and transform the way people viewed indoor shopping centres. Being away from the city centre, centre manager Lee Cutler saw an opportunity to revamp the retail space into a community centre. Now, Forestside Shopping Centre is a cultural hub.
Shopping centres have been debated globally for their effect on communities. Critics often associate them with urban sprawl, gentrification, and Americanization. However, the reality is that for decades shopping centres or malls have been safe havens for youth, something depicted in pop culture like Clueless or Stranger Things.
Like any business, clientele and audiences change in ebbs and flows. When Cutler joined Forestside a decade ago, he noticed that the younger audience came in for amenities like the banks or school uniforms, but nothing enticed them to stay.
“I noticed in the first year that we didn’t have an awful lot of programmes or things outside of retailing,” says Culter. His team began a series of competitions to tackle these issues with one solution. They put out calls for the best young chef, the best young designer, and the best young entrepreneur of the year.
One competition brought more attention to Forestside than any other, the best young singer-songwriter of the year. It was first meant to be a yearly contest, but the team at Forestside couldn’t help but notice a gap in the market. One local musician sparked the idea for Cutler.
“It was a lovely summer’s day,” Culter explained his interaction in the General Merchants years ago. “This young lad came in with a guitar on his back with his mom. He would have been about 15 or 16, maybe. We got chatting in the coffee queue, and he says, ‘I’m going for an audition on Britain’s Got Talent in The Odyssey.’”
His mother explained that he had nowhere to practise before the audition. As a parent, having kids busking in the city centre naturally feels unsafe. Add on the unpredictability of Belfast weather, and it seemed like it was impossible to justify having kids busking outdoors in the area.
Cutler jumped in immediately to help. “We said, well look, if you want to do a bit of practice, we’ve never done busking here, but it’s indoors. So it’s quite safe and warm.” Leeson turned out to be immensely talented. He showed up with no equipment, just singing with his guitar, without amplifiers. It was a hit with patrons, and Cutler saw an opportunity to benefit the experience of customers at Forestside and help the young music community around Northern Ireland.
Simply having that first busker multiplied into invitations to young musicians to perform throughout the centre. The competition programme grew so large from the exposure that they had to narrow it down from musicians specifically to singer-songwriters, which aligns with Forestside’s value to grow through innovation and creativity.
Ten years later, Forestside is far beyond just a space for buskers. In the foyer, the centre of the ground floor, is a complete stage kit with gantry, lighting, amps, and a PA system. Additionally, the programme, which started as a competition, is now a year-round development project for young singer-songwriters.
Another critical addition was welcoming Emma Bell to the team. Bell was a parent who trusted Forestside to give her son a safe space to develop his music. She fully understood what parents needed to feel comfortable having their children busk and further helping with growth in the music industry. “I always reach out to the parents and say there’s never a silly question to ask,” Bell says. “So from that point of view, they have the reassurance and guidance.”
There’s no doubt about the quality and quantity of talented musicians from such a small country as Northern Ireland. So it wasn’t that the resources didn’t exist for youth in music in Northern Ireland. Culter acknowledges the work of places like the Oh Yeah Music Centre but recognises that it’s simply not enough to keep up with demand. One of the most impressive additions to the shopping centre was a renovation of the old gatehouse.
Once there was no need for security to be stationed in the space, tucked underground between loading docks, Forestside transformed the area into a fully functioning recording studio run by Matt McIvor. In the aptly named The Gatehouse Studio, the ROOTS programme was fully committed to strengthening young musicians. These musicians didn’t have any experience in a studio, and learning the process of recording by walking into a studio could be a costly decision.
“If you go in, and you don’t know how to centre a clip track, or you just don’t even know what the routine is, you’ll come away spending 500 pounds over two days,” Cutler explains. “So we just use the studio here so that they can get free time to learn the skills. Then when we do put them in contact with a local producer, they go in very slick, and they can get a track done in a day and a half, which makes it much more cost-effective.”
In the past decade, Forestside has run so many programmes, competitions, and initiatives to develop young singer-songwriters from around Belfast and Northern Ireland. They’ve partnered with festivals to get their artists on stage, introduced them to labels, and created grants specific to those who do not fit the guidelines for Arts Council grants. They’ve used their resources like photographers and videographers to build artist brands, but it still wasn’t enough in their minds.
Cutler watched as the programmes spent years developing musicians until they were 18, but Forestside didn’t have a resource to continue supporting them once they outgrew youth competitions and ROOTS. Thus a partnership was formed with The Crash Collective to have programmes for under 25s who might not suit other structures in the music development industry.
Jack Mawdsley leads The Crash Collective and has a lot of respect for what Forestside has accomplished in the past decade. “Honestly, they’re doing amazing things,” Mawdsley says. “What they’re doing is providing a kind of a resource for young people to get the know-how and the resources to make music away from the bedroom to the next level. We’ve got a really vibrant music scene.”
Mawdsley sees the relationship with Forestside as a way to build on top of their work. The Crash Collective give management advice to artists as they outgrow the ROOTS programme at Forestside. They don’t manage the artist; they don’t profit from this but do it to develop talent.
The newest addition in 2022 was Big Love, a series of club nights with a different spin. The series of events through the year featured DJs until midnight and then showcased the top upcoming artists from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. “We want young people not to feel like there are closed doors,” Mawdsley explains.
“We can’t gate-keep talent. We need to open up the doors. The partnership between The Crash Collective and Forestside exists to open doors. It provides competition to existing institutions to help encourage the local industry to keep innovating, and most importantly, Mawdsley says of Forestside, “they’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Forestside is more than a shopping centre and more than a hub for young singer-songwriters. That is Cutler’s vision for Forestside that he hasn’t stopped building on. He describes Forestside as a “business enterprise centre” or a place for startups while adding culture. Music happens to be what caught everyone’s interest, but there’s so much more Forestside contributes to the community.
Cutler looks for businesses and opportunities that fit the brand values, people who represent creativity, innovation, excitement, and authenticity. It’s the place that gave popular local coffee shop General Merchants their first location by adding to the car park. One local entrepreneur saw a vacant space by the basement entrance as a spin studio, and when that wasn’t the right fit, he moved upstairs to open a barbershop.
The basement is a hub for start-ups, offering cheaper rent but still giving local businesses the benefit of footfall in a mall. There’s no space unused from bike repair shops to artists’ studios in Forestside. This includes moving offices from the top floor to the basement to accommodate a cooking school.
“You look at any building or space, and if you really look at it for a while, you discover space that’s not utilised. I’m not talking about empty shops or anything like that. That’s pretty obvious,” Cutler explains about making spaces usable.
Cutler doesn’t see why it would matter whether the space is used for a cookery school or a retail spot. He says looking beyond retail is vital for Northern Ireland shopping centres. His goals for the centre revolve around making an inviting space for the community, regardless of how that’s accomplished. Innovation, arts, and culture happen to be at the forefront of this.
“We feel good about our brand, for a good reason. Hopefully, it’s because we’ve helped someone, somewhere, along the line, whether they’re an engineer, whether they’re a designer, an artist, a musician, or they’re a chef.”