THE CHIEF executive of Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce is very clear about the kind of city Aberdeen is going to be in the future.
Though it has long been known almost singularly as the oil capital of Europe, Russell Borthwick said by the time a multi-billion pound series of investments is complete the city and surrounding region will have undergone a complete transformation.
“It will be a contemporary, confident, cool place that is high up the must-see European city break destinations list with impressive cruise ships berthed in the new £350 million harbour and a year-round programme of contemporary art, jazz, light and comedy festivals and sporting events,” he said.
To get there, the city is awash with projects that are not only giving its arts venues, transport links and green spaces a long-overdue upgrade but should in time transform its main thoroughfares too.
In total over £8.9 billion of projects have been drawn up for the region, with the most expensive – a £745m peripheral route that has been decades in the planning – due to complete this year.
Many of the projects – such as the upgrade of the city’s art gallery and music hall, the revamp of its airport and several internal roads, and the redevelopment of the iconic Union Terrace Gardens – have been put in place with an eye to improving visitors’ experience of the city.
However, Adrian Watson, chief executive of business improvement district Aberdeen Inspired, said that transforming the city centre for those that live and work in Aberdeen is also a priority.
Two landmark office projects – the £65m Silver Fin building at the west end of Union Street and the £107m Marischal Square at the east end – represent the first phase of this, with the long-term aim being to completely reimagine a mile-long route that has been hit by both the decline in the high street and the downturn in the local economy.
With a range of oil services firms already letting space in Silver Fin and Aberdeen Journals due to move into Marischal Square later this year, Mr Watson said that bringing office-worker footfall into the city centre is the first stage of a process that will eventually see parts of former shops turned into residential space.
“The buildings are old and historic but we have to adapt,” Mr Watson said.
“The reality is that Silver Fin brings several hundred people into the main thoroughfare day in and day out. They’ll be using retail therapy and restaurants and cafes.
“Marischal Square is buzzing and Aberdeen Journals coming into that is a big, bold statement.
“Residential will take longer but we want to look at these buildings to house people in the city centre, in disused parts of shops. We are in negotiations to see if we can take that to the next stage.”
Mr Watson said the importance of doing this has not been lost on public or private sector bodies, who recognise that “if you don’t get your city centre right the city will suffer and the region will as well”.
Jacqueline Law, managing partner of law firm Aberdein Considine, said that while “it has been a really difficult four-year period” in the North East, these projects are giving the city and region “a boost and something to be optimistic about”.
“There’s very much a feeling in the business community that we should get behind these projects to give the North East the support it deserves.”
For Mr Watson, while the local economy has undoubtedly been damaged by the recession in the oil industry, one positive to come out of the downturn is that it has given the city the impetus it needed to think about how it can reinvent itself.
“We all understand that this is a transitional period,” he said. “We’ve had it good, we understand that.
“The North East economy has been buoyant so there hasn’t really been that spirit of collaboration across sectors in the past.
“Who would have thought that we’d bring globally acclaimed street art festival Nuart to Aberdeen for the second year running this year?
“Would that have happened five years ago? I don’t think so. That’s all part of the psychological change we’re going through.”