Joan McAlpine: Tall ships put wind in Greenock regeneration sails

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IT IS not really surprising that a town like Greenock would be energised by the Tall Ships Race.

A triumph of craftsmanship, sailing ships have an ethereal quality that suggests something more than human skill must have played a part in their creation.

But while they look as if they were fashioned by angels, these ships were build by men - talented, ingenious, skilled and hardworking men. And perhaps we love them because they remind us what men are capable of - or were capable of before the great de-skilling of the West began several decades ago.

Nowhere is this more keenly felt than post-industrial towns such as Greenock, where several generations of my own family made a living from the sea. Thousands of people recently flocked to the town's James Watt Dock - the most complete surviving 19th-century wet dock in Scotland - to enjoy the tall ships spectacle.

Seafaring, ship building and marine engineering remain central to community identity years after their disappearance. This used to be considered sentimental. But since the financial crash it is perfectly sensible. Manufacturing and international trade - foundations on which Inverclyde was built - will power the world's present economic recovery in our own century.

Since the tall ships blew into town, this local pride has been re-energised in an extraordinary way. One of the joyful aspects of the Tall Ships Race is the creation of a carnival in every port - so the young crews have a party wherever they dock.

This year, the Inverclyde organisers had the ingenious idea of extending the festivities into the deserted sugar sheds that define the historic waterfront.

Once filled with mountains of sweet molasses, the cavernous space was filled instead by the sweet sounds of local bands and theatre companies. The transformation was magical, full exploiting the cathedral-like qualities of the building.

Described by the World Monuments Fund as a first class example of "secular monuments to industry" , the sugar sheds are Scotland's largest surviving cast iron and brick warehouses. The cast iron rectangular, circular and arched windows were glazed with small mullioned panes in a manner said to anticipate the Bauhaus.

Artists have long understood how a little imagination can go a long way in allowing beauty to shine through dereliction. But you didn't have to be an artist to feel the spirituality of this space - local people who visited during the Tall Ships Race immediately saw its potential.

Within days of the ships sailing out of town, a group of local people established a site on Facebook (where else?) calling for the sugar sheds to be retained as a community space.Soon they had thousands of supporters, a blog and a fully-fledged campaign. The local MSP Stuart McMillan has expressed an interest and is to meet the local regeneration company, Riverside Inverclyde, to discuss the building's future.

Inverclyde is not in my constituency, so it's not my place to be critical or prescriptive or anyone. But as a journalist I must draw attention to what is an admirable, culturally-savvy campaign. They have commandeered the distinctive typeface of the old Tate & Lyle sugar packaging in their artwork. Their blog brings local history alive and so helps fire the civic pride on which real regeneration depends.

This is not an us and them story. Credit should be given to the local regeneration company and Historic Scotland for saving and partially restoring the A-listed building after a 2006 fire. A plan was put in place to eventually turn the space into office accommodation. But with the recession lingering on, fresh ideas ought to be heard.

England has good examples of creative waterfront developments - the Albert Docks in Liverpool, the Baltic in Newcastle and, the breath-taking Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames. The Clyde once rivalled all of these cities in its industrial achievement and global supremacy.

Some replacements are wonderful, such Zaha Hadid's new Riverside Transport Museum in Glasgow Often they are forgettable, big shed architecture.

With a new year of homecoming in 2014, could the sugar sheds play some part in reviving the old plan for a geneology centre to attract the returning Scottish diaspora? Or what about a showcase for the work of George Wyllie, the artist who will be 90 this year and whose paper boats and straw locomotives have such poignant messages about the fate of the Clyde? There must surely be an opportunity too for exciting promenade theatre events of the kind once so successfully staged in Glasgow's Tramway and Harland & Wolff shipyard.

This is not fanciful. The urban theorist Richard Florida has demonstrated how towns and cities can be transformed through the influence of creative classes who in turn attract other workers and industries. The transformaton of large areas of New York City from the early 1980s owes a huge debt to artists moving into old industrial areas such as SoHo.

While local people have always been very clear about the value of their industrial heritage, planners have often failed to share their vision. I worked on the local newspaper in Greenock when shipbuilding was in a decline - hastened by Margaret Thatcher's blinkered failure to invest in its future. The talk then was of reality checks. One official told me that it was psychologically important to destroy industrial buildings so people did not live in the past.

Pride in place is something planners cannot create. It takes centuries to build, seconds to knock down. Fortunately Greenock, like many other Scottish towns, refused to forget its past.Thank goodness for that, it may point the way to a better future.

• Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the south of Scotland

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