It is famed as a tourist hotspot and home to a world-class university, but Durham is a serious place to do business too, as John Hill discovers.
BY ALL accounts, the city of Durham has been around for a while. It was founded by monks over 1000 years ago, features a 12th Century Norman cathedral and is steeped in a reputation for history and learning.
However, it takes more than that to get tourists and business to slow down once they’ve hit fifth gear on the long, snaking journey up the A1 into Scotland. Back in 1923, for example, coal mining in County Durham was a source of employment for 170,000, but that was down to 108,000 by the 1940s and was further decimated in the following decades.
The area now has to offer different reasons for people to plunge their money into the area, whether they’re setting up businesses or just buying ice creams. One of the most compelling reasons is still the beautiful landscape the region enjoys, from the history-lacquered peak of Durham Cathedral to the beaches near Seaham and the sprawling countryside.
County Durham Development Company (CDDC) director of innovation development Catherine Johns says: “The thing that always comes up is quality of life. It’s a nice place to work and a nice place to raise a family.”
But wait, because there’s more. Over the last few years, Durham has also taken a lead from its namesake in North Carolina, focusing on science-based innovation in a growing park just down the A1 in Sedgefield.
Durham in North Carolina is part of the region’s Research Triangle Park, a venture designed to nurture innovative businesses that is now home to winners of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Since the idea was transplanted by the CDDC to County Durham, companies such as recent US-arrival Advance Imaging Systems have been drawn to the expertise on offer at the famous Durham University, and the facilities at the park itself.
NETPark was built in 2005 and opened a second phase to tenants last year following the success of organisations such as Petec and bottle-scanning company Kromek.
CDDC’s Alan Bramble says: “When we were seeing the demise of the steel and coal mining industries, it was fortunate that a team of people from Durham identified an inspiration like Durham in North Carolina.
“CDDC set about developing the park, not as a conventional business park but to give a kick up the pants to the county. It’s an economy which is much more diverse and robust and self-sustaining.”
Catherine Johns adds: “Innovation is much more resilient. The management team has to be good and the marketing proposition has to be good, but the recession doesn’t change whether the intellectual property is good or not.
“People are also attracted to the quality of the facilities. They’re designed with these businesses in mind. They also like being part of a like-minded community, and being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Businesses have received funding and support from the Be Enterprising programme, which has been supported by Local Enterprise Growth Initiative funding since 2006.
Be Enterprising was awarded £4.1m in 2009 to increase entrepreneurial activity in the region by the European Regional Development Fund 2007-13.
The programme has supported a variety of projects from renewable energy to hairdressing.
While business is a key part of any community, a major focus for one such as Durham is tourism. The industry supports 12,000 jobs in the county, attracts 18 million visitors a year and is worth £656m to County Durham.
But even with landmarks such as Durham Cathedral to call upon, Durham City cannot rest on its laurels. Melanie Sensicle arrived from Brighton four years ago to take the lead in turning Durham into a more dynamic visitor attraction.