Energise Galashiels inspires hands-on action


A dynamic group of community activists in Galashiels have been working with South of Scotland Enterprise (SOSE) and other partners to revitalize the town centre. Members of Energise Galashiels Trust have used their diverse skills to carry out high-impact regeneration projects including large striking street murals, shop front transformations, new town centre events and a wide range of floral displays. However, most importantly, the team has worked with key officers from SOSE and Scottish Borders Council to progress the Tapestry Way Study. The Study focusing on the core of the town sets the foundation for potential improvements and future investment activity to make Galashiels more attractive, active and accessible.

SOSE has helped the group to think more ambitiously and strategically, and work productively with government agencies towards shared public agency and community goals. The group are also developing a new generation of local leaders with hands-on experience of people power in action.

Failed BIDS attempt sparks new strategy

Despite many successes, Energise Galashiels Trust chair Mike Gray admits the group’s plans nearly came unstuck after a failed Business Improvement District (BIDs) attempt.

“We lost our BIDS attempt because Tesco’s vote wasn’t registered, and we lost the crucial rateable value vote. This was a significant disappointment, but led to us contacting SOSEP (SOSE’s predecessor) and Scottish Borders Council to develop a pilot project. I’ve known SOSE chair Russel Griggs for 30 years, and he indicated that SOSE wanted to see a three-year plan, to begin to look at more ambitious, longer-term strategies, rather than one-off specific projects. So, we developed the Vibrant Gala plan, which looked at a three- year timespan, and submitted that jointly for funding to SOSE and Scottish Borders Council.”

“Energise Galashiels has successfully secured £600,000 funding from SOSE to date over two years. This has allowed a range of regeneration activities, focusing on Galashiels town centre to be progressed and implemented”, says Mike. He adds, “we were really encouraged to be bold and ambitious, but also wanted to concentrate on the old town centre, and particularly Channel Street, where the larger vacant premises are. We felt that by focusing there, we could make a significant impact for the benefit of all of Galashiels, and arguably for the Scottish Borders.”

Passion for change in Galashiels

As Mike explains, the drive for change in Galashiels town centre came from a deep passion for the place. “I was born in Gala, brought up in Gala, went to school in Gala, and lived in Gala all my life. Business has taken me to many parts of the world, but my base has always been here.” Energise Galashiels came about through an email from Sheila Robertson, a local chartered accountant, he says. “Sheila asked what I thought of the town centre. Although I got my rolls every day from Dalgetty the bakers, I’d stopped paying attention, but realised – blimey, it’s actually pretty bad. Channel Street in particular, where the large national retailers have been. The retail parks on the edge of the town are a positive, but it was as if the heart had been taken from the middle of the body, and parked on either end.”

With his background at global Gala-based software publishing operation McQueens, which is now Sykes Global, Mike was well placed to pull together a team of like-minded people. Early successes included lobbying for the Great Tapestry of Scotland to come to Galashiels Town Centre.

“There were two sites, including Tweedbank, and no council-owned sites in the town centre. So Energise Galashiels and other local interested parties lobbied for a town centre-first policy with the Scottish Government, to get the Great Tapestry of Scotland Visitor Centre into the town centre. Fortunately, property sites opened up that allowed that to happen. So that was a major catalyst for future working with government agencies.”

Volunteers and managing time

Energise Galashiels is now working with strategically with SOSE, drawing on a core leadership team of 16 volunteers, supported by a wider bank of over 50 volunteers. Mike says the scale of ambition means it’s important to manage people’s time carefully, and contract out services if possible. “You have to create a structure that allows people to contribute their skills without burnout,” he says. “So, for example, I’m the older generation, and we have the younger generation, such as Debbie Patterson, my niece, who’s very good at marketing, Craig Murray from Dalgetty the Bakers, and David Patterson, who is a structural engineer. The important element is to find the projects that we can ask them to lead, without overburdening them. These are folks with young families, running businesses of their own, lots of time pressures, but they absolutely want to contribute to Galashiels. At one point, Debbie had to walk away, due to other commitments, but we’ve found a time slice that works for her. It’s vital to be able to contract and pay for professional support. Volunteers can’t do this on their own.”

SOSE acts as bridge to national partners

Mike has found SOSE’s place-based, holistic thinking a good fit for the trust’s efforts. He also says SOSE advisers have make it easier to connect to the government agencies.

“Our SOSE main adviser has been Julie Hogg, whose advice I trust and respect a great deal. I’ve known her from the start – I played rugby against her father! Her guidance has been very useful, with us coming from a business background. It’s a different culture working with the agencies, though I have some awareness from working with Scottish Enterprise for six years. The private sector is in some ways more adventurous and needs to get things done. Someone like Julie understands what we’re trying to do and can help us understand the world we’ve got to live in, when it comes to funding and approvals.”

Business planning has been done in close consultation with SOSE and SBC. “We’d had dialogue going back and forth. They might say, ‘I don’t think you’ve any chance of getting that. I think this might work – let’s look at this a different way.’ We rely on our partners to guide us towards best way. I think everybody’s trying to get to the same place. And my world isn’t the world of SOSE or SBC. So, they helped us to adapt.”

Town centre regeneration successes

Highlights of the past couple of years include colourful murals to break up the streetscape, and eye-catching window vinyls on vacant shop frontages. “People have said it looks far more vibrant and welcoming, and it helps to showcase events such as Abbotsford’s Walter Scott anniversary. We’re hoping the frontages will encourage people to consider taking on the properties. Last year, we also supported Gala Community Council and their Floral Gala/Gala in Bloom team, who do great work maintaining Bank Street Gardens. And we’ve also helped support a property, which had been vacant for many years and had a really unattractive prominent frontage to get redeveloped into offices, with the help of our property improvement grant.”

Strategic thinking and visible impacts

Mike says that with such a big vision, it’s crucial to break things down and focus strategically. “You’ve got to have long-term strategies, but you’ve also got to have momentum and create impact, to get support from the community. Five years from now is too long. For me, it’s about seeing what we can get done this year.”

Energise Galashiels manages this by having a series of projects on the go, at different stages. “As part of our planning with both SOSE and SBC, we’re developing project briefs that are fully costed. An example is the two groups of wheelie bins that have been sitting in the town centre permanently. They’re a pain in the backside and we want to get rid of them. It might cost £5-10,000 to do that. With costed projects, this means that if funding opportunities arise, we’ve got the project ready to go. Say someone said, we’ve got £250,000, if you can spend it before the end of March 2023. We need to be geared up for that.”

Business skills background

Mike has great faith in local skills and talent, not least from his background at McQueens, which became European hub distributor for Adobe. “We had Apple people from California coming to see us, and we’re introducing them to our staff on the job, and they say ‘Gee, you’ve got great people.’ And then you actually realise we’ve got great people, who are maybe quieter than Americans – but who is better than us?” At the same time, he says it’s important to acknowledge the work burden when working mainly with volunteers. “We reckon we’ve contributed about £200,000 worth of volunteer time, and we pay around £50,000 a year in contracted time. We don’t employ anyone. We have a handful of people who do silly hours that aren’t good in the long term. With most people, we try to get these thin time slices, because if not, we’ll lose them.”

Community regeneration top tips

So, what tips does Energise Galashiels have for South of Scotland community groups with big ambitions for regenerating their town or village? Mike advises, “focus your efforts on resources you consider to be absolutely key. Don't get distracted, create impact, deliver, and be seen to be delivering in the year that you're operating. Also, as most of us are from the private sector, be appreciative and patient of the folk we're working with who have to operate in a slightly different world. Because the hoops, regulations and compliance can be frustrating. You come across silos where departments don’t talk to each other, which happens in business, too. We all face the same challenge of developing a modern, place-based approach.”

Into the future

Future sustainability is high on the agenda, and with another year to go till the end of its three-year-plan, Enterprise Galashiels is looking ahead. “A big question for us is how to sustain it beyond 2024”, admits Mike. “Do we need another Business Improvement District-type model? Could Energise Galashiels make investments that would make it more self-financing in its own right? Will there still be SOSE support beyond that? I imagine there will be, but equally, we’ve had three years of pretty strong support, and any organisation has got to look at it say, you know, it’s not forever. So that’s something we’re discussing with SOSE.”

Energise Galashiels is delighted to welcome volunteers and donations – get in touch via the Energise Galashiels website.

SOSE Community Development Specialist Julie Hogg said:

“I have worked with Mike and Energise Gala for a number of years including during my previous role at SBC. What really strikes me is their passion, dedication and commitment for their community. Galashiels like many of our towns across the South, has so many strengths and opportunities. Although sometimes the regeneration journey can take a number of years, for me, it is always a pleasure to be part of a team making a difference on the ground – and making our towns and communities the best they can be”

SOSE Chair, Professor Russel Griggs OBE, said:

“SOSE is delighted to be working with Energise Galashiels Trust and Scottish Borders Council to help the town capitalise on its new visitor attraction, The Great Tapestry of Scotland.”

“The Tapestry of Scotland will be a catalyst for the successful regeneration of Galashiels, and will bring a wide variety of educational, economic and community benefits to the town and beyond.

“SOSE’s funding will support the Trust’s wider aspirations too, which will prove to be invaluable not only to the economic regeneration of Galashiels, but also to the town’s recovery after the pandemic.”

Grant Fund in numbers infographic

Find out more:

Energise Galashiels Trust

Galashiels Heartland

“Focus your efforts on resources you consider to be absolutely key. Don't get distracted, create impact, deliver, and be seen to be delivering.”
Mike Gray, Chair, Energise Galashiels Trust

“People need to be able to contribute their skills without burnout. Find a way to use small time slices.”
Mike Gray, Chair, Energise Galashiels Trust

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