Pretty vacant: Empty retail unit goes ‘pop-up’

Eclectic bunch - some of the 'Pop-Up' festival team at Montgomery's
Eclectic bunch - some of the 'Pop-Up' festival team at Montgomery's

BALLYMENA’S first ever ‘Pop-Up Festival’, which aims to make better use of vacant units in the town centre, has proved a real success.

The venue for the experiment was the ground floor of Montgomery’s, Ballymoney Street running from Monday 3rd September to Saturday 8th September.

The event formed part of the public consultation that Ballymena Borough Council has been carrying out on the Draft Public Realm Strategy for Ballymena town centre but was driven by Local architect, Stephen McClelland, who headed up a team put together after a recent meeting oin Cafe Couture, Mill Street.

The team included musician Joe Rocks, writer Andy McKinney, artist Carole Kane, artist Cheryl Sinclair and lecturer Jonathan Leakey from Redeeming Our Communities Ballymena who all hail from the locality.

Montgomery’s also very kindly offered the use of their vacant ground floor unit for the project.

“Following the initial meeting, we worked up a programme of events which we could hold in the unit for one week within the public consultation period. The idea was to explore the creative re-use of vacant units which have become an all too familiar feature in our town centre,” said Stephen.

The festival was preceded by the start of the ‘Inside Out’ art project, an international photography project aiming to turn the world ‘inside out’ through art. Carole Kane worked with local photographers Connor McCullough and Kenny Gregg on Saturday 1st September to take a large number of portraits of local people to symbolise the idea of ‘Community’ in Ballymena. These striking black and white images will begin appearing in public places throughout Ballymena in the next few months.

A total of seven small businesses used the space for the week. These included Peekaboo Boutique, Painted by Jane, Sew Homely, Wild Flowers of Ireland, Once Upon a Time, Miriam’s Wish and Need for Beads most of which do not have their own premises. There were also exhibits by artists from VisArt, and Cheryl Sinclair whose colourful origami cranes decorated the shop window for the week.

The stalls were supplemented by a number of events that happened throughout the week. On Tuesday an origami workshop was hosted by Cheryl Sinclair; on Wednesday Ivy Ridge and some girls from the Ballymena Inter-Ethnic Forum demonstrated the preparation of three ethnic dishes; on Thursday Joe Rocks was joined by Connor and Patrick from local band The Stone Masons for a lunchtime acoustic set; on Friday Willie Drennan and Joe Allen entertained the shoppers and local guitar builder. Ian McIlroy from IMC Guitars demonstrated the guitar building process and the finished product; on Saturday Bobby Speers played an acoustic lunchtime gig.

As part of the week, the Northern Regional College’s first year Art and Design students carried out a project based on our town centre called ‘Downtown Looking Up’. The students, led by Jeanette Lammey, split into teams and took one street per team. They took photographs looking up at the buildings , created montages for each street and drew over them on acetate. The finished piece was exhibited in the unit from Thursday to Saturday.

As well as the unit being open during the week 9-5 Joe Rocks organised a ‘Later with Joe Rocks’ acoustic night on Friday. There were four acts; The Stone Masons, Harbour Annie, Lauren Hannan and Joe Rocks himself. They played from 8pm through to 11pm and provided a quality musical experience which showed a good example of what Ballymena town centre’s night life could be. Joe hopes to organise this event regularly in the coming weeks. Watch this space.

On Saturday evening it was sad to see the unit return to its empty state after a week of activity and buzz. Thanks are due to everyone who took part in this week and made it happen, often at no expense. Particular thanks must go to Mark and Richard Montgomery for the free use of the unit and their enthusiasm and can-do attitude.

Stephen and his team hope that this will be just the start of a push to see empty units re-used in creative ways. Ballymena Pop-Up Festival 2013 aims to see ten vacant units in the town centre re-used for a fortnight of events. If you are a landlord of such a unit and would be interested in taking part please contact Stephen on 07950631236 or email