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Back to Leeds

Back to Leeds

Words by
Martin Dickson

2020 has been the most tumultuous year for most of us in our lifetime, let’s hope! For Leeds City Centre, the impact has been equally massive, equally disruptive and significant in how we function as a society and economy. And so how do you react and respond to such a shockwave!?

Sometimes, in the face of what are seemingly insurmountable odds, our optimism is our strength. And if one thing stood out as we approached the first unlocking of June 15th 2020, post the initial 3 months lockdown, Welcome Back to Leeds emerged and gave us the banner to rally around and the platform to fight from, coupled with a desire to come out the other side positively and energetically.

So in mid-June, we were emerging, blinking in the light, and waving goodbye to Lockdown Episode 1 and hopefully (though naively as it would turn out) goodbye to the horror of lockdowns ever again. Little did we know. It’s hard to believe now, but at that stage face masks weren’t second nature – and a second-wave was an ugly head yet to have reared. Food and drink fans would have to wait – but shops were reopening, and people were tentatively returning to the city centre.

And it was those people, their voices of hope, their optimistic faces that gave us the most powerful story we knew we had to tell in a bold and uplifting way. One thing lockdown had told us, was there is a kindred spirit between most people when a common and shared threat has to be dealt with. So we harnessed dozens of those voices, brought together loads of the people facing this uncertainty with cautious optimism and a true, fighting Leeds spirit.

Over the course of the next few months, we interviewed around thirty business owners, creatives, bar owners, shopping centre managers, chefs, hairdressers, brewers, workspace directors, and students. In honesty, I expected to hear worried voices from tired faces, but the optimism and positivity was as uplifting, it was inspiring and perhaps more than a little bit surprising given what we’d all faced and were still yet to navigate in the uncertainty of the weeks and months ahead.

Retail in Leeds did it’s bit – moving quickly to pepper its premises with social distancing signage and hand sanitizer:

“It’s a new normal, but we want to make sure that we’ve got a nice environment, so it doesn’t feel too different.” Alison Baldwin, store manager, House of Fraser.

All this effort, all this determination was captured and communicated and people increasingly engaged, it was the fillip, we were all after and so the power of this voice grew.

Next it was the turn of Hospitality businesses, with their first re-opening set for July 7th and having done everything in their power to survive – and helped each other along the way. Staff were furloughed, businesses adapted, home delivery exploited and survive they did, with us shining a light onto some of our strongest city centre businesses and singing the Leeds song loud and proud.

“There’s been a huge network of support amongst business owners in Leeds. We’re all in this together, and support from other businesses has been vital to staying positive.” David Olejnik, Laynes Espresso.

Some even found the space to grow:

“Lockdown has been a time to improve and refine, and come back a lot stronger than we were before.” Elizabeth Cottam, Chef and owner at Home Restaurant and The Owl.

By now the WBTL social media had grown massively, a new, vibrant and shared community all lifting each other, all pulling together to bring back all we loved about our city in-spite of the huge challenge we had faced and were yet to face. The warmth, the comments, the videos the support all kept on building to show the very best of the strength and energy of Leeds.

And for some independents – it was a reminder of how much they’re appreciated by the city, again one of those unexpected opportunities arising from a crisis:

“When we reopened, one of our regulars came in maybe three times in a four hour period – just to be in a record shop. I think people have really missed little treats like that.” Nick Fraser, owner, Jumbo Records.

As we look back on those early interviews, that ‘Dear Leeds’ film narrated by Ralph Ineson, the welcome back to students showcase film in late September and the Leeds United promotion special video we released within 5 minutes of the final whistle in the promotion match (I know right, we were so on it!!);  it seems to me that not a single sentence was wasted on complaining or accepting the half empty glass; but the tone was for words like “Adapting”, “preparing”, and “adjusting”, ‘’uniting’’ and very much more conveying the sentiment of recovery and a brighter, bolder future we could all be a part of. And though, sadly we have, perhaps inevitably, lost some along the way – the sight of big and small businesses reopening, and in some cases thriving, adapting, changing in ways they could never have considered possible before,  has been remarkably encouraging, incredibly inspiring and gives us all a sense of real hope for a stronger city as we continue to move forward.

So keep your eyes on Welcome (back ) to Leeds, perhaps we’ll drop the back soon because we are most certainly back, most certainly fighting and most certainly not being defeated from pushing Leeds forward into a wonderful future post this pandemic.

So while the ridiculous Tier system caused chaos and confused us all, Lockdown Episode 2 came and went, Christmas got smashed ( I mean come on Christmas didn’t even escape!) and then we had lockdown Episode 3 was definitely the last thing anyone wanted, we’ve got through it all, we’ve fought through it all be assured that Welcome to Leeds will keep on showcasing, promoting and sharing the very best of that Leeds spirit and determination on into the future as we all work together to rebuild and grow stronger.

The words of one of our city centre’s characters seem a fitting way to finish this, sums it up beautifully’:

As Adam Warner of the Corn Exchange puts it:

“It’s going to be a challenge for everybody, but the city will thrive again. That’s a definite.”


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