Bristol Synergy Centre

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This proposal builds on 5 years experience of running world-class ‘conscious’ community based events in one of London’s largest club venues, the legendary Synergy Project, 3.5 years experience running a successful youth and community centre in Camberwell South London and 2.5 years running a community music, arts and wellbeing centre in Brighton. The Synergy Centre is seeking to put together a consortium to convert a landmark listed building in Bristol into Synergy Centre 3.0.

Social Enterprise Model

The Synergy model is ideally suited to the current economic and social environment, in which local government is having to cut back on the services it provides, looking to the voluntary sector to fill the gaps.

Rather than relying on public funding, Synergy operates a social enterprise model to deliver affordable community arts and social space by hosting weekend ‘conscious events’ that combine multi-media entertainment with awareness-raising of topical social, environmental, cultural and spiritual issues. The income from these events is used to cross-subsidise charitable activities that seek to tackle social exclusion through training and work-based learning and by creating an affordable, supportive, welcoming and creative environment for people suffering disadvantages such as homelessness, long term unemployment, poor mental health or substance misuse. We also support local organisations and projects that work with such beneficiaries with affordable or free space and signposting to sources of funding and potential partnerships with other like-minded people, creating valuable ‘synergies’.

Co-Production & The Core Economy

Synergy is a strong advocate of the principles of co-production, which sees local people and organisations as vital partners in the design and delivery of services, particularly in the social-care sector. The core economy is defined as “home, family, neighourhood, community and civil-society”, which can be supported through the provision of affordable community infrastructure which support the development of more active and resilient communities.

Synergy Aims and Objectives

• To promote the individual and collective well being, health and happiness of people living in communities, particularly those suffering from social exclusion, poverty and the associated low levels of wellbeing, mental and spiritual health.

• To tackle worklessness and social exclusion in the community by providing people with the necessary support, inspiration and infrastructure to become more economically, socially, culturally and spiritually active citizens. This is based on the recognition that through ‘work’, while taking many forms and not necessarily having to involve paid employment, people can make a constructive contribution to society and can generate valuable wellbeing and self-esteem outcomes.

• To build the capacity of local groups and individuals working in the field of citizenship and cultural education, in healthy, sustainable and ethical living and to create a space where such people can gather, socialize, network and develop collaborations and partnerships and thereby build the capacity of the voluntary sector as a whole.

• To raise awareness of and thereby to empower people to adopt healthier, happier and more sustainable lifestyles.

• To highlight the importance of creativity as a means of providing people, particularly the young, with an outlet for self expression and a means of enhancing self esteem and confidence, the lack of which lie at the root of much antisocial behaviour.

• To contribute to wider community safety by diverting young people from the risks associated with destructive cycles of boredom and crime and instead giving them an outlet for their youthful energy and drive.

Proposed Centre Facilities, Activities and Projects

The Synergy Centre is seeking premises in Bristol that could accommodate some or all of the following features :

• A medium sized live music, performing arts and conscious club venue, min capacity 750.

• Affordable workshop / dance / multi-purpose space for local groups to organize activities and meetings.

• A community art gallery and artists workshops / studios.

• A health and wellbeing space suitable for activities such as yoga, meditation, tai-chi etc

• Affordable office space for local not-for-profit organisations.

• Affordable sound and video production studios for established and emerging professional, local young people and others.

• Support services for people suffering social exclusion and marignalisation such as rough sleepers, people with poor mental health or the long term unemployed.

• A community café, serving vegan / vegetarian food.

• Affordable accommodation for centre crew, beneficiaries, visiting artists, volunteers and visitors

• A roof garden / terrace.

Synergy Events

The proposed venue would host monthly ‘Synergy Project’ events based on the highly successful model operated in London between 2003 and 2008. Synergy events combine entertainment provided by DJs, live bands, spoken word, visual and performance artists, video installations and community music and dance with information / outreach stalls, debates and discussions hosted by local and national non-governmental organisations working in the fields of social justice, development, community development, poverty alleviation and sustainability. The events act as a space where socially and community minded people can gather, network and collaborate or where people can be inspired to become more active in their community.

Homeless Guardianship and Advocacy

The Homeless Guardianship project is one in which members of the rough sleeping community are employed as care-takers of the building, assisting with the maintenance and operation of the centre.

Beneficiaries are given a warm and safe place to sleep as well as membership of a supportive community, are given gainful employment and provided with a support worker who signposts them to additional services (such as mental health or substance misuse services) and advocates on their behalf. The goal of the project is to facilitate the reintegration of the beneficiaries in to society and to smooth their path into temporary and then permanent accommodation. The centre would also host a series of events to give members of the roughsleeping and homeless community a strong voice and thereby tackle the sense of alienation and isolation they often feel, building on the success of the Rough Sleepers Advocacy Project in Brighton.

Wellbeing Network

The proposed centre would work in partnership with local individuals and organisations working in the wider ‘Wellbeing sector’ to host a series of events and to develop a network to promote healthier and happier lifestyles, the sharing of best practice and latest ideas / knowledge and to promote collaboration and partnership working. The events would also seek to promote a dialogue between the established health sector and those working in the complementary sector, so as to promote better understanding of their respective values and practices. The events would feature workshops, debates / discussions followed by entertainment, particularly those of a participatory nature, highlighting the well-being benefits of participating in community arts activities such as music and dance.

Volunteering, Active Citizenship and Social Inclusion

The centre would provide a safe and supportive space in which people can volunteer, gain work experience and benefit from being part of a community which helps them reduce their sense of isolation and loneliness, make a constructive social contribution – with the attendant self-esteem and wellbeing outputs – and to connect with like-minded people. Such opportunities are particularly beneficial to people who may be experiencing social exclusion and isolation due to long-term unemployment or suffering from low levels of mental health.

Indigenous People, Ghana Synergy and Bristol’s problematic trading history

Indigenous People is an arts education charity whose managing director, Steven Peake, is also managing director of The Synergy Centre. The charity organizes tours of the UK of traditional African music and dance groups, who visit schools, arts centres, festivals and clubs to perform and teach.

The charity aims to raise awareness of the health and wellbeing benefits of participation in local community arts activities, as exemplified by traditional African drumming and dance, and to promote racial and cultural tolerance and understanding. They have built their flagship group, the Kakatsitsi Master Drummers from Ghana, up from scratch to become one of the leading groups in the world, with a big stage performance at Glastonbury Festival in 2013, main stage performances at Shambala Festival in 2017 and 2012, and performances at WOMAD in 2013 (BBC Stage) and 2017 (main stage). Indigenous People are also working with The !Gubi Family, a group of San ‘bushmen’ musicians and dancers from the Kalahari desert in Namibia, and Mbilou, a Bwiti musician, dancer and healer from Gabon.

It is proposed that Indigenous People would locate their UK headquarters at the Bristol Synergy Centre, delivering performances and workshops for children, young people and adults in traditional drumming and dance as well as touring schools in the city and wider region. The musicians and dancers in the Kakatsitsi group, as well as other groups managed by the charity, would stay in the accommodation wing of the centre whilst not out on tour around the rest of the country / Europe.

Indigenous People / Synergy are currently developing a proposal to establish an Accra Synergy Centre, which would have a music / club venue promoting live and dance music of a more cultural and conscious nature than normally available in the increasingly westernized Ghanaian music business. The Accra centre would also focus on celebrating Ghana’s leading role in the movement for the decolonization of Africa and for Pan-African Unity as well as delivering informal education projects focusing on vocational and life skills to local young people. The centre would also provide small business incubation support and advice services for young entrepreneurs, focusing on, but not limited to, the arts and tourism sectors.

Proposals are also being developed to establish a ‘Kwahu Synergy Eco-Village’ in the Eastern Region of Ghana, combining indigenous tourism attractions in partnership with local traditional authorities with the eco-tourism appeal of the forest and Lake Volta. Both the Bristol and Accra Synergy Centres would act as outreach and promotional vehicles for the Eco-Village.

It is proposed that the Accra and Bristol centres would engage in youth and cultural exchange projects, delivering a wide range of benefits to young people in both cities, thereby helping to create a more virtuous relationship between Bristol and West Africa than has existed in the past. In the medium term, Synergy / Indigenous People seek to develop similar links with partners in the Caribbean.

Track Record

Between 2002 and 2007, The Synergy Project ran a series of multi-media ‘conscious parties’ at the SEOne Club in London Bridge, South London, presenting a wide range of art forms including a variety of forms of western dance music, live folk and world music, poetry, film, performance dance, art and video installations and a speakers / discussion space, combined with information stalls from NGOs working in the environmental, social justice and development sectors. Within a year, the events were attracting widespread critical acclaim and over 2,000 people aged 18-55 – a more mature and cultured demographic than is usually found in more commercial clubs.

Synergy Project turn-over was £20-30k and created a surplus of £3-7.5k per event. When one considers the venue costs of £6500 and a bar take of £10-15k, the nights had become a very significant income generator, yet half the income was lost to agencies from outside the Synergy community, notably the venue which was owned by commercial interests.

In 2005, the surpluses from the Synergy Project were invested in founding the first Synergy Centre in a disused warehouse in the deprived community of West Camberwell in South London. This was an area on the front line of gang activity, troubled by high levels of anti-social youth behaviour and crime. The warehouse was converted into a 700 capacity venue, obtaining temporary licenses to run smaller Synergy events, a regular open mic night and events run by local community groups, families and promoters. In addition to running the Synergy Youth Project – a series of creative workshops for over 80 local young people funded by Camberwell Neighbourhood Renewal – the Centre provided a variety of affordable facilities including a dance studio, a multi-purpose workshops space, a large rehearsal space and a lounge, in addition to office space for two BME social enterprises. Income from room hire, fundraising events and office rent grew to a ceiling of £15,000 a month with a monthly rent of £5000 and staff costs of a further £5000 and other overheads of £1000. In 2009, the building housing the centre was sold, requiring the Synergy team to move out and operations ceased.

Between 2015 and 2017, The Synergy Centre had an interim lease on a 1500 capacity disused night club in Brighton. Having renovated a historic building that had suffered considerable damage from squatters and neglect, the Synergy team ran a series of projects to support disadvantaged communities and provided affordable or free space for local voluntary organisations. The highlight of the 2.5 years in Brighton was in September 2017 when Synergy was the main venue for The World Transformed, the conference organized by Momentum to run parallel to the Labour Party Conference. At the end of 2017, the redevelopment of the building began, requiring Synergy once again to relocate.

Having operated in two venues with insecure short-term / interim leases, whereby considerable time and energy is invested only for the lifetime of the project to be cut short by commercial priorities, Synergy are now keen to find a building owned by a public sector body that values the social outputs generated by the Synergy model as opposed to solely considering narrow financial profit.

Prior to the lease on the Brighton venue, Synergy spent some time exploring the feasibility of redeveloping a grade II listed former cinema, The Astoria, in central Brighton, including entering into discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore the option of HLF funding the refurbishment of the building. Due to a lack of interest from the property owner, problems with the location of the building and the high projected costs of the renovation, the redevelopment did not go ahead. However, Synergy became aware that their partnership with Indigenous People represents a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the field of intangible heritage that can be leveraged to support a strong application to the HLF in the future, should another suitable building become available.

The financing of the Bristol Synergy Centre – a community finance model

In order to escape the limitations associated with the interim uses of buildings and a subsequent inability to achieve proper sustainability, Synergy are looking to acquire a long-term tenure on a building. There are fundamental differences between the finance model we propose and conventional ways of financing property development. The finance we are proposing would be generated is investment finance, made preferably through venture philanthropy and inspired by a desire for a highly ethical and modest
financial return. Annual repayments are therefore lower, which increases the commercial viability of the model. Importantly, as the finance is not debt-based there is no prospect of repossession or closure during an economic down-turn.

The way in which the CDP model works is as follows :

A Bristol Synergy Community Development Partnership (or alternatively a ‘Cooperative’) will bring together a variety of local organisations, who are interested in developing a building as a centre to support the voluntary, arts and wellbeing sectors in Bristol.

Membership to Bristol Synergy CDP will be open to the following :

• Local organisations working in the field of culture / creativity, health and wellbeing or the alleviation of disadvantage / social exclusion.

• Local people interested in attending events at the centre, hiring the facilities, getting involved or those generally supportive of the cause.

• The City Council, who could contribute a publicly owned building into the partnership, following the principles and practices outlined in the Quirk Report.

To raise the finance to purchase the building and conduct the renovations, the CDP will issue a form of credit named ‘Synergies’, either redeemable against the future income of the Centre as it develops to be held as an investment.

There are two ways of financing the issuing of credits:

Short Term – suitable for members of the Synergy Community and partner trades people working on the renovations, who either buy or are allocated credit for time worked, at a rate of £0.90 per Synergy.

For example, an individual who wishes to support the development of the Centre and envisages attending events or workshops, can purchase 100 Synergies for £90. They can then redeem these credits by paying for tickets to events or workshops at the Centre with these Synergies at a 1:1 value, thereby gaining a 10% discount. Alternatively they can retain the credits and sell them either to another individual or to the CDP for an agreed price. Similarly, a local plumber, electrician or plasterer who works on the renovations is willing to accept part payment in Synergies, which are paid at the same rate of one credit for £0.90. They can then use these credits to pay for tickets or sell them on at a later date, most obviously to the operating company of the Centre as it starts to generate surpluses. Members of the Synergy Community who purchase the Synergies will also be able to use them to trade with other members of the community, within the Synergy Economy, whereby the credits become a unit of a complementary currency. These currencies are gaining increasing recognition as useful tools to lubricate and stimulate economic activity in cash-poor communities and to keep wealth in local communities.

The issuing of community credits in this way is an excellent way to i) reduce the amount of expensive investment capital needed ii) transfer ownership of the asset to the community, thereby increasing the likelihood that the community will support, promote and patronize the centre in the future.

Medium to Long Term – suitable for venture philanthropists (VPs) investing larger amounts over a longer period of time. The VPs purchase credits at a £1:1 Synergy ratio, but their credit allocation is index linked to prevent depreciation, so that at the end of every financial year, the CDP will issue a top up allocation of credits to preserve the value of the investment in real terms. On top of this, the VP can negotiate a further annual allocation of credits of 1-3 % which will serve as a ‘capital rental’ fee. At any time, the VP can sell their credits to another investor or buy more credits, should the CDP be issuing more to raise additional finance.

Once again, as the Centre generates surpluses, it will start to buy back the credits bought by investing VPs or, should the VPs not be in a hurry to be repaid, invest the residual funds in further Synergy ventures. Repayment of the credits is done at a level that is affordable to the operating company. Once it is fully operational, the target will be to repay between 10,000 and 20,000 credits a month, increasing as the centre becomes established and revenues increase.

Reducing Renovation Costs – by employing trades people from within the community, the CDP can reduce renovation costs by paying them partly in credits issued by the partnership. Materials and agreed minimum labour costs can be paid in conventional currency but some of their profit can be paid in credits to effectively part-defer payment. Unskilled renovation tasks can be performed by other members of the
community, once again on the basis of a credits allocation.

Affordability – a fundamental premise of the Synergy model is that of affordability, a key component of the not-for-profit ethos underpinning the model. As the purpose of the enterprise is to maximize community benefit, everything traded by the Centre is priced at an affordable level so as to maximize accessibility.

Tickets to events are offered with a significant concessionary reduction for those on low incomes. The price of food and drink within the venue will be similarly affordable. Once again, this sets Synergy events aside from the competition. For investors, the affordability of the capital rental means insures that it is – by definition – more likely to be paid and therefore entails lower risk, which justifies the lower level of return.
This creates a virtuous circle completely opposite to that of debt-financing, where the greater the risk, the higher the interest demanded by the lender and the more likely it is that the borrower cannot afford the loan.