Norwich's Open Venue proves a hit

Matthew SparkesIt has been six months since the huge building on Bank Plain that once housed Barclays Bank opened as a state-of-the-art youth centre. Matthew Sparkes paid it a visit to see how things were going.Matthew Sparkes

It has been six months since the huge building on Bank Plain that once housed Barclays Bank opened as a state-of-the-art youth centre. Matthew Sparkes paid it a visit to see how things were going.

From the outside there appears to be little difference to the huge building on Bank Plain from when it was home to Barclays Bank - apart from its new bright green doors.

However, on the inside a revolution has taken place - and one that has proved to be a massive hit with young people throughout the city.

Since its launch 21,000 have passed through those doors to make use of the bewildering array of services on offer, and the numbers look set to climb as even more facilities are rolled out.

The venue is the latest, and perhaps most successful, project from the Open Youth Trust, the charity set up by entrepreneur Graham Dacre, who made a fortune in the region through property and the motor industry.

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The trust bought the building and has spent the last seven years developing plans for the centre.

And at the heart of its development has been the teenagers themselves , with a Youth Forum set up to ensure the centre would be relevant to the generation that were to use it, not the one that was funding it.

This group helped decide on everything, from what facilities should be provided to what furniture should be placed in each room, and is still an integral part of how the centre runs.

Consultation is ongoing, and management calls on young people to make their feelings known on the future of the venue on a dedicated Facebook page.

OPEN admits that it is difficult to sum up exactly what the 50,000 square foot building is; part youth-club, part advice centre, but with an enormous range of other services on offer.

It is free to use for anyone aged from 13 to 25, and is open from 9am to 10pm every day, with 30 full-time staff on hand.

Although young people are free to come and go as they please, there are rules; the entire venue is free of alcohol and tobacco, for instance, and people are breathalysed on the way into evening events to make sure they have not been drinking elsewhere.

Nicky Rodwell, who has worked for OPEN since just before the opening, said: 'It's just to make sure it's a safe environment and to keep parents happy.'

'We have to have team members working on the floor, just to make sure its safe.'

She explained that the centre has been a big success and attracted a wide range of people, from various schools and colleges.

'It's very close to Norwich School, so we tend to get a lot of sixth-formers in here, especially at lunchtime,' she said.

'It's really quite varied, there's a real mix of young people in here, into different things.

'We're not pretending to be youth workers; we're here to provide facilities for them.'

'It's basically a youth centre, but the main difference was that this place was created by young people, for young people.'

Ally Flatman, 21, is one of the young team members tasked with making sure that children are safe and that the facilities are used properly.

'We get regulars, but weekends have a mixture of newcomers,' she said.

'A lot of it has been spread by word of mouth, we haven't really done any publicity.'

'It's quite a weird mix of people. I love it, I couldn't ask for a better job.'

Despite the large number of users the centre receives every day, from varying backgrounds, she said that there had been 'minimal' problems with behaviour.

'It's something that you can't really avoid, but we're handling it really well,' she said.

'Everyone is saying that it's a modern day youth club.'

Work on the building is still ongoing, and one of the next things to be introduced will be a system of swipe cards that will give young people a sense of belonging, but also keep out unwanted visitors.

But if the success of the innovative centre is to be maintained, then the next step will be to ensure that it is self-sustaining.

Purchasing and refurbishing the venue cost over �12 million, which was provided by grants from the Open Youth Trust, Norwich Union, the National Lottery Fund and private donors, but this cannot keep it going forever, said Miss Rodwell.

'There's still a lot to do, and a lot we want to do, but generally we're getting lots of young people in,' she said. 'The idea is to eventually become self-sustaining.'

Already the main hall is being rented out to corporate clients, with a 50pc discount to fellow youth charities, and has proved so popular that bookings for 2012 have already been taken.

Two not-for-profit businesses owned by OPEN also channel funds into the running of the centre, namely the H20 car wash in Norwich city centre and CLOSED, an archive storage company based in the old vaults under the building.

Do you know of an innovative youth project? Call reporter Matthew Sparkes on 01603 772439 or email

What do the users think?

One group of young people at the centre took a moment to explain how they see the project.

Crystal Chaplin, 17, moved from Rugby two months ago and has made a group of friends who regularly spend time at OPEN.

'It's nice and warm in here, and the atmosphere is great. Most people get on,' she said.

With her was Sydney Hamling, 17, who is studying catering at City College Norwich.

'We use the reading room quite a lot,' he said.

The pair had seen a leaflet for the OPEN centre at the Forum, which is where he and his friends used to spend their free time.

'We thought we didn't really like the sound of it,' he said, but added that he quickly changed his mind once he had seen it.

'This is where our group of friends feel safe and comfortable. We've told them what we want. We're looking for a skate park, and they said if we get the funding we can get a collapsible one, so a few mates and I are fundraising.'

Both said that they would be sad on the day that they were no longer allowed to attend, and would consider applying for jobs at the centre or doing voluntary work.

What's on offer at the OPEN venue?

* A caf� is being built next month, which will open by early summer.

* Games room with pool tables and computer consoles.

* The UK's first purpose-built under-18s nightclub, which can hold 460 people.

* Tallest climbing wall in Norfolk, which stands at 12 metres and is soon to be fitted with equipment to help wheelchair-bound users.

* A health centre.

* Two recording studios, which are currently being fitted out.

* A dance studio with mirrored walls.

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