Interview with Roger Wade, founder and CEO of Boxpark

By - Thursday 16th February, 2017

Roger Wade put Croydon on the map, so why can’t we just be grateful?

Roger Wade.
Photo by Boxpark, used with permission.

Criticism of Boxpark has startled its crew. When I visit the crates on Tuesday 7th February to meet Roger Wade, its founder and director, development director Matthew MacMillan, events manager David Byrne and Megan Thomas from Boxpark’s public relations agency, Full Fat, they’re keen to tackle the issues. Noise complaints, lack of variety, lack of community involvement… before we’ve even sat down, they tell me that they’re on it.

Boxpark’s arrival is part of our borough’s regeneration. What does Croydon think about that? Working in Croydon Visitor Centre (2008-15), I discussed the subject with thousands of people. Some days, it wasn’t fun. Some of them swore at us. Someone else cried when she saw a model of the town centre of the future. Day after day, a slow-motion crisis of negativity.

It didn’t come from nowhere, though. Faced with all change, Croydon (a lamp post banner put up to inspire the populace) many of its people think that someone is having a laugh. Regeneration, the mythical Arena, the illusive Westfield – what’s really happened? they ask. Nothing. Oh – except for those four failed attempts to gain city status. The last lot of changes, back in the ’60s, is still widely regarded as disastrous. So will the next lot be, if it ever happens, is a common view. Politicians and planners never learn. Have you seen what they’re charging for those blasted new high-rise flats?

The problem is that other Croydon, largely outside of the ‘Twittersphere’

Boxpark’s doubters are those determined that they won’t fall for hype, neighbours whose windows rattle, who see missed opportunity or just nothing in it for them. Most of all, though, they’re that other Croydon, largely outside of the ‘Twittersphere’, to whom ‘Tech City’ and ‘RISE Gallery’ are unfamiliar terms.

Enter Roger Wade. Croydon’s Boxpark is really called Boxpark 2: the first is in super-fashionable Shoreditch, east London. Croydon Council asked him to come; it wanted a big news, big noise, glitzy centrepiece for the regeneration project. He’s a dynamic, successful retail entrepreneur with a job to do and he’s doing it very well. He didn’t ask to be a symbol of controversy. Who’d be pleased about that?

How can you label a whole borough as being grey?

My meeting with him is enjoyable: he’s energetic and alpha-ish but also a bit self-deprecating. “I’ve had too much coffee”, he grins, as his enthusiasm for his subject gets rapid-fire. And there’s lots to talk about. Boxpark’s pitch is hip, but he tells me (a touch disloyally, perhaps) that he likes how we keep it real in our part of the world: “I’m used to Shoreditch where people just want the next cool thing. The people of Croydon have been so welcoming”.

Roger Wade does not readily see the critics’ concerns. He mentions the transformation of Hackney over twenty years. “Every borough undergoes regeneration. When I moved there with BoxFresh (his first company, in fashion) there were prostitutes on the street in Commercial Road. Was that good for the community, or for young people to see? The people of Hackney deserved something better, and so do the people of Croydon. How could you label a whole borough as being grey?”, he asks.

Photo author’s own.

And he’s absolutely right about Croydon town centre: the struggles of its night-time economy, the lack of a decent food offer, the abysmal, embarrassing state of the shops. (We’ve waited long enough: will someone, please, just put that whole area out of its misery?) No hand-wringing clicktivist but a focused do-er, he looks for solutions to problems he sees. I don’t think he’s a ‘yes, but’ kinda guy. His role is to deliver.

For Croydon to improve, all of its businesses need to improve

Expressions of concern about, for example, a threat to south Croydon’s Restaurant Quarter from Boxpark get short shrift. First of all, it’s too far away to be affected. But even if it was closer “it’s ridiculous protectionism of businesses. It’s an utter farce. Every consumer deserves a choice. If it’s to improve collectively as a borough, all of Croydon’s businesses need to improve. In Shoreditch, when Dinerama turned up on my doorstep, I didn’t run and complain to the council. I just accepted that as competition, and competition is good”.

Market forces rule. As they should, for him, since he’s a successful businessman and not (he says this twice) an elected politician. He’s here to make change work. And he really is here, not just commuting (so his previous disloyalty is pardoned); he’s taken a flat close to the Boxpark site and identifies as a resident. “If we have aspirations to really regenerate our borough – putting aside the pros and cons of gentrification, which I think is a word that’s over-used, but just to make it a better place to live – then we should be encouraging all sizes and shapes of businesses to come here. We’ve got to raise the bar collectively”.

We won’t make a profit in five years

Next we get stuck into how Boxpark arrived. To be clear: Roger Wade didn’t order the closure of the Visitor Centre. But many believe that the council chose to subsidise a stylish leisure park rather than save an award-winning and enabling service used and valued by thousands.

It turns out, though, that unlike Boxpark itself, this isn’t black and white. Roger Wade indeed received money from the council, and explains how this came about. The temporary nature of Boxpark (with planning permission for just five years) makes it difficult to finance the project by the usual commercial route. “Trust me, we’d have preferred a normal commercial loan! We’re paying 10% interest this way” – the council’s loan is £3 million – “but with a five year term, you can’t go to commercial lenders. The council’s not just given us the money – oh, there’s three million quid, you don’t have to pay it back. That’s fabrication.

“It’s totally normal for a council – any council – to lend in circumstances they believe will promote regeneration, and also give grants” – 305k in five annual payments – “in those circumstances too. The loan is held against all the assets of Boxpark. We attract over 300 jobs, and forty other businesses as tenants paying business rates. And we won’t make a major profit in those five years anyway”.

He realises this begs the question: why come? “We hope to stay longer, and that’s where we’ll make a return. Before then, there won’t be a massive one. There might not be any return in that time. But we took the risk”.

160k originally earmarked for Ambition II, successor to the town centre music-fest that launched somewhat uncertainly in 2015, has also been handed to Boxpark. That’s to fund an annual event to replace it, and twenty smaller community festivals. “It’s a relatively small amount”, says Roger Wade, and for a rip-roaring programme, he has a point. Ambition neither ripped nor roared, filling venues that already had a strong and enthusiastic customer base, such as the Oval Tavern or Matthews Yard, but making little impact in the town centre, chiefly because it lacked a central stage and focal point. It could work really well in Boxpark, and he tells me that they’re keen to grow it.

It’s fundamental to us to have as many Croydonians working here as possible

And those 300 jobs? David Byrne describes how Boxpark engages with Croydon College and Coulsdon College, attending recruitment days there. They used local firms for Boxpark’s build and for many of its materials, including its decorative metal work, and employ Croydonians wherever possible in day-to-day operations. “We’re the biggest client of (jobs brokerage service) CroydonWorks“, he explains. “It’s fundamental to what we’ve tried to do – to have as many people from Croydon on the site with us”. Those 300 jobs created is, says Roger Wade, a conservative estimate, demonstrating “every single avenue we’ve tried, as far as possible, to get into and to engage the Croydon workforce”.

Boxpark also pays the London Living Wage to all its employees. It’s approached the colleges again about apprenticeship programmes for all of its tenants. No doubt at all – this is really good stuff.

So considering the outcome as a whole, and what’s still to come, slipping it the money starts to make sense. And by now as I listen, I’m thinking: wow, so how many good news stories got missed? Okay, the place offers music for kids. As part of a mix, it’s great. But don’t lead with that. Boxpark brings jobs, skills the young, supports the local economy. It does things that the adults want done.

You build a platform then spread it out

Why did they lead with it? Partly I think that I’m just old and don’t understand how massive grime is. (They explain it to me kindly.) But Matthew MacMillan gives another reason. “We need to get the cool kids – they start everyone talking about it and create a trickle-down effect. We want to appeal to that wider audience. You build a platform and then spread it out”. Now I happen to think that that’s pushing it, and have my doubts about trickle-down. But in the end it won’t matter. Outcomes will matter.

Throughout Boxpark’s opening hours, they assure me that there’s already a wide mix of clientele. Lots of workers at lunch time of course, young mums in the afternoon, the workers return after hours then it all gets hipper by night. “We have a real mix of people, all ages, right across the community”, says Roger Wade.

David Byrne explains that there’ve been fifty-six events since Boxpark opened, counting the thirteen Sunday acoustic sessions, forty-three of them community-based and all but two free to attend. This programme will be expanded over the coming months. There’ll be music variety; sports fans will be catered for (so far, with a rugby match screening and a boxing-fitness class called Fight Klub). There will be dance sessions and yoga lessons. “We’re just about to announce a one week film festival. It’s free”. At Christmas they showed the festive film Polar Express. Croydon Community Choir is coming to sing. Lots of variety, they promise. Says Matthew MacMillan: “We want to engage as many citizens as possible, to appeal to a wide spectrum of the community. Watch this space”.

They stress that Boxpark’s new, that they’re learning

Photo by Made in Croydon, used with permission.

How about Croydon’s creatives? Engagement with these groups was part of the original pitch, and they’re still on the case. Roger Wade wants to work with the BRIT School. “We’ve reached out to them since day one”, he tells me. “We feel they should be doing more with us within Croydon”. He mentions end of term shows for art students on the site. “We’re waiting to hear back from Croydon College. We’re constantly talking to them”.

For me, the best thing at Boxpark so far has been Made in Croydon, two very high quality craft markets featuring the work of local makers and designers. (Think a sort of mini-Greenwich market: the location is made for it and it could expand.) Establish this regularly, and that statement about being in Croydon for Croydon would be well made. The team seems genuinely keen to make it happen.

They stress that it’s only been three months, that it’s all new, that they’re learning. It’s just that three months is a long time when everyone’s watching.

Time’s up, and Roger Wade’s off to catch a train. (Not a commuter train: he’s based here, remember. But he’s heading out of London.) It might have been safer to say “Hey, Croydon – we have a cool new thing for you! We hope you enjoy our cool new thing!”. After all, the place is a business: it’s not come to save us.

But it turns out that the crates, and Roger Wade, might just be on our side. I left with the feeling that Boxpark, like everyone really, wants to be loved.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Ian Marvin

    As a relatively regular visitor to Boxpark I’ve yet to experience any Grime being played, anyone making a pilgrimage in the hope of finding this genre dominating will be disappointed. In the interest of constructive feedback the thing I hear most is the issue of the (not very nice) toilets being closed simultaneously with the units, a small detail perhaps but one that is causing discomfort and inconvenience for many customers.

    • Anne Giles

      Which, of course, would put me right off, as well as the long wooden tables.

  • Steve Thompson

    This is actually quite encouraging especially with regard to diversity of events – let’s hope that actions now follow words! I am still finding it impossible to find out where the ‘mobile phone number of the sound crew’ can be found (previous article by Lauren refers) – although there have been no further noise problems where I live since early December, this would be a useful bit of information for our residents’ association. Agree with Ian (below) about the toilets – they are not very pleasant!

  • Patrick Blewer

    As a PR who has previously worked for controversial figures I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall at this. Sounds like he’s a charming and compelling interview and that perhaps some of the Boxpark hype didn’t come from him but from a Council desperately for positive PR.