“It’s been a rollercoaster!” The team behind much-anticipated street food and start-up hub Spark:York freely admit that getting their vision off the drawing board and into life hasn’t been easy.
Planning, funding and building have all presented their challenges along the way. But finally York residents – more accustomed to heritage and stone – are able to finally experience what Spark is all about as the shipping container mini village opened to the public at the beginning of May.
Two of the team behind the social enterprise are York alumni: director Sam Leach who completed a masters in International Political Economics, and communications consultant Jo Little, who studied sociology between 1992 and 1995.
We spoke to Jo about the vision behind the project – and why the whole team is keen to make sure Spark:York has plenty on offer for local students and graduates.
“I really believe this is one of the most exciting things to happen in York for a long time,” she explained. “Many developments in York are aimed at tourists and the city is full of big chain stores, restaurants and bars, whereas Spark champions small, independent traders – with community at the heart of the project. We have had an extremely busy and successful launch and the first couple of weeks trading figures have been strong. The response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, and people really seem to understand the aims of the project, in providing an affordable place for an interesting range of independent businesses to trade.”
Housed in the former Reynard’s garage site, which had lain disused for years, the accommodation has been designed by architect Carl Taylor. Formed from 23 recycled shipping containers, the low-cost, flexible structure means the site can be cleared quickly at the end of the three-year project.
Sam and his fellow director Tom Mckenzie are passionate about creating an affordable space for start-ups and entrepreneurs.
“A social hub of street food, cafes, bars, restaurants and art, will include three bars and food offerings from vegan to Asian street food, to galettes and crepes – and more,” explained Jo.
“Part of our focus is to bring vibrancy to the city’s uninspiring early evening economy. We’re looking forward to providing a rich programme of events going forward, both independently and working in partnership with other organisations in the city such as the upcoming Mediale and Bloom! Festivals.”
Other signed-up retailers include a vintage and vinyl store, a hairdresser, clothing, homewares and stationary. Another area will offer hot-desking space for micro businesses to work and collaborate.
Social vision has been baked in to the venture from the start, as Jo explained.
“All the traders at Spark:York were selected because their business plans include a social purpose, proving they are committed to giving something back to the local community.
“The affordable rent is designed to make Spark a springboard – giving the businesses a fighting chance to become established before moving on to permanent premises in the city, where they can continue to support the community through their work.”
There’s also an active community engagement programme, where groups and charities will be invited to meet and attend events. As a registered community interest company, Spark:York will reinvest 100% of net profits into providing daytime activities and opportunities for these groups.
Jo’s own journey is pretty much a blueprint for the Spark vision. She stayed in York after graduation, initially working for technical agency Isotoma (also established by York alumni) before moving into marketing for Jaguar and Ford. Remaining in the car industry for a while, she switched back into tech, before starting a family prompted her to opt for a more flexible life as a self-employed marketing consultant.
And that’s how she came to be involved in Spark, a project that chimes with her own passions and vision for her adopted city.
“Spark:York is primarily for the people who live here,” she said, “It’s not designed to cater to the wealthy tourist trade or the ubiquitous hen parties. It’s going to be an affordable place to socialise for all residents, both permanent and temporary.”
The team is keen to encourage more York alumni to follow a similar path to Jo’s. Currently less than 2% of graduates from the two universities stay in York but Spark:York hopes to create opportunities for young people to build their careers in the city
Jo explained, “Now that Spark has opened there will be opportunities for graduates to volunteer, work, study and socialise all in one city centre location. And what’s more, it’s right next to the Number 66 bus stop!”