Conference Space

The banner reads ‘It’s better to have rolled and lost than to have never rolled’ over this year’s ‘Marble-ania’, the annual UK conference for collectors and purveyors of marbles.  For three days, aficionados, designers and some of the UK’s best players convene to discuss the latest developments in the world of competitive marble play; and they even find time to shoot a few games for one of the key domestic championships . “It’s a more serious business than it has ever been since the Chinese started competing.” Explains Dave Redden, who founded the conference back in 1983, “they just seem to find money that dwarfs anything we could ever raise for the game under the couch.”

But there is controversy surrounding this years event. Among the stalls, selling all sorts of fine crafted alabaster and agate stone, there are murmurs of betrayal and corruption. The venue for this year’s conference is the Gwenne Induction Hall, a former coal miners union of Northwest Wrexham that has been revamped for gatherings like ‘Marble-ania’ – a conference with an attendance of 2,000-5,000 over the stretch of the weekend. Mr. Redden’s event, since its creation, had been held in Castling, near Redcar. The change of venue was triggered by an ambitious gamble, taken three years ago, by Wrexham city Council. The city’s mayor Graeme Landsdowne witnessed the searing bidding war between the UK’s major cities for the latest Amazon distribution centre – the victor being Liverpool. Lansdowne could never dream of putting Wrexham in a position to offer the incentives that huge cities like Liverpool could offer to a conglomerate such as Amazon, but he wondered if there was potential to revitalize his city by making it more appealing for smaller events.

It was a risk but Wrexham, he laments, has suffered decline for over a century – what with the closing of the iron and coal mines. The town, he felt, was only kept on life-support due to its industrial past gifting it access to a main trainline, allowing residents to commute to the bigger cities for work.  “My responsibility,” he asserts, “is the town. People are resilient and will find a way to work and keep their families going, but as a town we had to do something to energize our sense of worth.” He looked into ways of re-directing some of their budget into a department that would seek out events, with attendance levels of up to 8,000, and identify what incentive Wrexham could offer that could persuade organizers to move to them.

There was resistance to the idea, a cash-strapped council was appalled to find that their dwindling budget was being directed to, what opposition called, gambling (even labelling it as bribery) to, what was essentially, private business. Lansdowne gave the protests time to make their case, understanding fully that the project would only work if his department could provide long-term returns. “What I know best about the British is that they love hobbies most of all.  We have more conventions for minor oddities, little obsessions and past-times than any other nation. I knew that many of these gatherings were motivated by the passionate, and that their localization was not fundamental to their identity – afterall, it’s not like we were trying to relocate the hikers of the Mam Tor foundation to come to Wrexham.”

Lansdowne’s theory delivered the results, there were hundreds of small-scale conventions taking place all over the country where the organizers were often strapped for cash every year and were spending more time hunting for adequate sponsorship, than putting their energy into a successful convention.  Wrexham’s offer was an upfront payment to help with promotion – Wrexham’s Event Department even formed an in-house web development team to upscale the website and promotions for these events. “Essentially, they want to make the event about their obsession.” Explains Clark Unsworth, head of Site PR of the WET, “they know they need the website and they know the information, the tone and the design, but they can use my department to put it all out there, they don’t have to scrabble with any HTML and CSS.”

As for re-invigoration of the city, local businesses report a 13% increase in sales while an event is taking place. “This initiative has saved quite a few of the local pubs,” states Paul Healey of the Wilcombe Arms, “a lot of these little events are for fellas, English nerdy kind.  They like their ale and they like a lot of it.” Along with the increase in sales it also provides a boost to employments, around 75% of businesses that serve food, drink and accommodation have hired 2-3 more permanent staff and hire up to 2 part-time seasonal staff when one of the bigger events comes around.  Paul McCafferty, a 17-year-old A-Level student, works regularly at the seasonal roles but is unsure that the events help the city.  “We’ve already heard about Starbucks and Pret-A-F***in’ Manger trying to buy out some of the local stores, so how long is it gonna last? I don’t blame the people owning these little places, their cafe and pub has been practically worthless for 20 years, and now these big shit-houses are throwing a life-time of earnings at them for the site. And what is it all for?  For these little geek fests? I’ll tell you what it’s like.  It’s like we get visited by a little UFO every month, different geeks from different geek planets, wandering around like lost cows. Everyone’s grateful for a living but it’s pretty depressing, you know what I mean?”

Lansdowne, understandably, doesn’t have time to concern himself with the transformation of identity his initiative is making.  “If places like Starbucks want a piece of Northeast Wrexham, that’s not part of an A-41 service station, it’s a compliment in my opinion. And anyway…” He says before departing between stalls hocking Aggies, Allies and Onionskins, “I can’t think too much about that, that’s for planning permissions to discuss.  We have a Vintage football kit conference in two weeks and we need to find about 2,000 square metres of plastic grass; it’s harder to find than you think.”

M_Fealen  – WREXHAM

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