After 10 years managing the creative and community spaces at Hamilton House in Stokes Croft, Coexist left the building for the last time at midnight on Thursday. As a result, over 20 Coexist staff lost their jobs.
The relationship between Coexist – the former main tenant – and Connolly and Callaghan (C&C), the building’s owner, deteriorated over the last 18 months.
The building has been the subject of public demonstrations and calls for Bristol City Council to safeguard its future through community ownership, despite Coexist’s departure.
Coexist offered to purchase the building, but their bids were rejected. In November, the owners decided to not renew Coexist’s lease giving 24-hours’ formal notice to leave. Declaring their ‘legal right’, Coexist stayed for a further month.
C&C’s plans include redeveloping part of the building for residential use. However, two local planning applications and a subsequent appeal to government planning inspectors, have been refused.
C&C appointed Frome based organisation Forward Space as an interim manager of the workspaces. However, 95% of Coexist’s users, including artists, environmental and community groups, charities and social enterprises have departed. Due either to eviction, or refusal to remain under the new management.
Claire Holmes, a co-director at Coexist said: “The last 18 months have taken their toll, a lot of the team have been at intense levels of stress, not knowing what’s going on with the business.
“We have tried every step of the way to be respectful and professional and to treat C&C with the respect we feel, we deserve to be treated with”.
I had been invited to spend their last two days at Hamilton House, I witnessed a mammoth clear-out operation by staff and volunteers.
Standing in the empty shell of Coexist’s former Community Kitchen, Ms. Holmes said: ‘ “Our intention is to hand back the building with the love we have for it, in a perfect state. We’re taking everything with us, cleaning everywhere and will hand it over with respect for them [C&C]”.
Formerly vibrant and busy work spaces were emptied. Five floors of fixtures and fittings – including a large oak floor from the building’s performance and event space were transported into storage.
A new location had been found in the St. Annes area of Bristol. From there Coexist plan to restart operations sometime in the new year.
Claire Holmes continued, “Despite the redundancies and the loss of Hamilton House, people are feeling quite positive and excited to get to the new space. We’ll have a break and get together in January and think about what we want to create next”.
Centre of excellence
I joined Danny Balla another Coexist’s director in the now bare, former event area. Dance workshops, gigs and many other performance had been held in the space over the past decade.
He said: “C&C bought the building 12 years ago. Then. in 2008 with the financial crisis they couldn’t fill it.
“The banks were on their backs, so they asked Coexist to create a centre of excellence for sustainable communities, full of artists and social enterprises, a community kitchen and more”
The work areas, studios and community spaces managed by Coexist grew into a workplace for over 500 people. As a result, estimates say, £21 million in turnover was generated, per year.
Mr Balla commented: “At some stage, C&C must have got frustrated with Coexist and their attitude changed and shifted. Or maybe, all along they were using us to increase the value of the building and the area? We don’t know.
“But I and countless others wouldn’t have got involved if the carrot wasn’t dangled of, ‘one day you will buy the building'”
Approached for comment, C&C’s Head of Social Enterprise, Andrew Baker described the last ten years working with Coexist, as a “social experiment”.
In a written statement he said: “We are sad that Coexist decided to leave Hamilton House, in which they had been running a social experiment in the formation of a ‘centre of excellence in sustainable communities’ for C&C. Until the evening of 19th November, we believed that we had agreed with Coexist a solution enabling them to continue running community/outreach programmes while Forward Space would run the building and office space”.
Mr Baker’s statement added: ‘C&Cs’ offer included subsidised rental to cover the period to 31 December 2018, allowing time to negotiate a future for Coexist in Hamilton House’.
However that wasn’t to be, and time was called on Coexist’s operations at Hamilton House.
On the last day, as midnight grew closer, a final light show took place at the windows above The Canteen.
As onlookers in Stokes Croft cheered and waved, lights were turned out until a solitary torch light remained. It was then extinguished to mark the end of an era.
I joined staff as they made their way to Coexist’s HQ area for one final time. They formed a circle. Thoughts and memories were shared, there were tears and a little anger. But they found much to celebrate looking back on 10 years work.
Danny Balla acknowledged the “sense of being let down”, but noted “we’re an optimistic, creative and innovative bunch. These are the things we want to nurture”.
The staff I spoke too were hopeful for the future and a fresh start for the collective at its St. Annes location. There was also optimism in the fight to save Hamilton House for future community use. On January 15, Bristol City Council will debate a possible community share issue
What’s left when creativity, cross-pollination and community spirit are gone?
Lights out on the empty house 🏠
The fight is not over. pic.twitter.com/EA2scfS0Wo
— Hamilton House (@HamiltonHouseBR) 1 January 2019
Finally, at midnight security personnel arrived to secure the building. Staff gathered the last of their belongings. And quietly, but defiantly, Coexist left Hamilton House for the final time.