Can Do Places visited The Rockfield Centre in Oban on the eve of the launch party for the community shares offer that will allow everyone with an interest in the future of the town to invest in the new centre which will provide a cultural community hub, not only for local people but for visitors to Oban as well.
Just four years ago, the former Rockfield Primary school which closed in 2007, was “teetering on the brink of demolition”.
Fearing that the ‘B’ listed Victorian school – described as “one of the last iconic buildings in the centre of Oban” – could be lost forever, local people launched a campaign to save it for community use.
As a result, the Oban Communities Trust was formed with some members of the Trust having personal connections to the school stretching back to their own time there as pupils.
Following eight months of the proverbial blood, sweat and tears, when the Trust had to produce a full business plan for the community centre project, as well as evidence to show that their vision for the building would be sustainable and bring both economic and social benefits to the town, the council agreed to sell the school to them for one thousand pounds (£1000) and handed over the keys in May, 2015.
Taking up the story, project facilitator Eleanor MacKinnon, one of four part-time employees at the Rockfield Centre (which is currently based in the two old but substantial classroom huts in the school grounds) explained that, while the “heart” led the initial campaign to save the building, the Trust worked hard to start activity on the site to keep the community engaged as they worked towards raising the £3 million that was needed to transform the old school.
She says: “An extensive community consultation process identified four core themes for the building’s use: arts and culture; history and heritage; enterprise and education; community well-being. These gave a focus for us to build activity – but stabilising the main building was a priority.”
With local trades people pitching in to get the boarded up huts open for business and the main building issues addressed – “It helps to have a well-kent face” says Eleanor who has lived and worked in the Oban area all her life and who admits to occasionally “twisting arms up backs to get help!” – the Rockfield Centre was able to welcome members of the community within a matter of weeks.
Since those early days, thousands of people have attended more than a hundred events and activities (including Oban heritage “Blether” sessions, music workshops and, now in its third year, an annual open art exhibition) that have taken place in the huts which are also used by local groups and organisations who pay a £10 an hour hire charge.
The hire charges bring in much-needed income which is also generated by the small car park in the school grounds that the Trust inherited when they bought the premises and continue to run, bringing in a very useful £34,000 (thirty-four thousand) annually.
In March this year, the Community Charity Shop opened in the huts and profits from that – they took in more than £6000 (six thousand) in their first three months – also go to run the Rockfield Centre.
Eleanor MacKinnon says: “Oban has a long-established history of running social enterprises. We have a bit of an island mentality – we do things ourselves. As soon as the Trust got the keys, we launched an appeal to get rid of the dry rot in the school and, once again, local trades people and our volunteers from the wider community pitched in and filled 19 skips with rubble from the building.”
These days, The Rockfield Centre volunteers list runs to 100 people, 15 to 20 of whom can usually be mustered when a job needs doing.
The Trust has had an enviable success record where fund raising is concerned. They’ve already pulled in more than £2 million of the £3 million needed to refurbish the school which is scheduled to open in 2020.
Says Eleanor: “To fund raise successfully, you need to be able to sell the concept of your project to the funders – not unlike a CV when you’re selling yourself to a prospective employer. The funding needs to fit the project. We’re lucky in having four different themes for the Rockfield Centre project – which means we’ve been able to apply for four different funding streams.”
She added: “We’re also lucky in having very strong connections to the community and a board of trustees who work tirelessly to keep the momentum going.”
In the run up to the community shares launch, Gordon McNab, chairman of the Trust explained: “We have already secured the bulk of the money from grants. We are so near the finish line – we only need to raise the last £500,000 from our community shares offer to get the centre refurbished and the lights on.”
In fact, on the launch day itself, more than £25,000 was pledged.
For further information about the Rockfield Centre and the story behind it, check out their website at www.therockfieldcentre.org.uk