Fifty years of friendship and finance – meet Christina Wigmore

We’ve been celebrating our fifty years of friendship and finance by talking to the people who have worked with us along the way. Today we introduce Christina Wigmore, of Soft Touch Arts, in Leicester

We first got involved with ICOF in around 2005. We needed to make improvements to the building we were in at the time, and so we got a loan of around £10,000, to help us to do more kind of work with young people in that space.

That was our first loan, which was brilliant. And, then five or so years later, we realised we had really outgrown that building and its location, which was outside the city centre, and really hard for young people to get to – we worked with young people from a lot of the outlying estates and it could be two buses for them to get to us. We were spending a lot of money in transport costs to get them there. As well as that, it didn’t have great disabled access.

We had a real vision of what we could be and we wanted to develop the company and raise our profile. We decided we needed to be in the city centre, and started looking for a building – preferably to purchase – because if we had a longer term lease on a building or we owned a building, we could also apply for Arts Council capital funding, to improve all our equipment and everything else. Then, in 2012, we found a put a perfect building on New Walk in Leicester.

We started trying to work out how we could buy this building. It belonged to the city council. It used to be their workplace nursery and had been empty for some time, and they were wanting to sell it on the open market at auction. So I wrote to the Mayor, and said, “Look, you know, we’ve got these ideas, to turn it into a Youth Art Centre. It would be a fantastic thing for Leicester and for young people of Leicester – would you consider selling it to us?”

Happily, they took it off the market and said they would sell it to us, but then of course we had to find the finance! We went down various avenues of commercial banks and, being a kind of social enterprise charity, we got so far and they said, “Oh, no, you’re not secure enough”.

So then because we had the track record with ICOF we went back and asked if ICOF would consider making a loan. It wasn’t that complex, but I think it was a big risk for ICOF, I think it might have been the biggest loan that they’ve given at that time. £149,000 seems to stick in my head. We had to raise some of the money ourselves, because the building was more than that. But ICOF loaned us a big percentage of that, and we’ve always managed to make our payments. It’s just amazing that ICOF put the trust in us as an organisation and made that loan otherwise – well, I don’t know where we’d be. We probably would have fizzled out by now. We really believe that building has really helped to raise our profile, to grow as an organisation and develop in the ways that we wanted to develop and offer better services for young people.

The new building enabled us to really have state of the art facilities, and we designed it with young people to make sure it provided what they wanted. So we’ve got a music rehearsal room, recording facilities and an art studio, a kitchen because we started to do a lot of cooking work. We have an event space, which we use for exhibitions and a social enterprise café where young people get cooking and catering skills, in a real Café environment, that also brings in a bit of funding to put back into the project. We run all kinds of events, fundraising events, business engagement events, exhibitions – we would never have been able to do any of those things, so the building really changed the way our organisation operates, and the range of opportunities we’re able to give to young people.

Our opening event for the building was actually a royal opening! It was a lot of work but it gave us a lot of publicity. We invited everybody that had been involved. Since then, some of the more successful events are those events where we’re showing what young people do, but whilst we’re trying to engage people that wouldn’t know about the charity. We call these our Show and Tell events – we bring people in from local businesses or local authority and they see in action, what Soft Touch does in action.

Happy Birthday ICOF – keep on making a difference and supporting fantastic social enterprise projects to grow and develop.  Soft Touch wouldn’t be where we are now without your support