The economic enforcer rides in
Regeneration & Renewal - 04 February 2005
Hull is one of the toughest regeneration challenges in the UK, so in its search for the right leader, the city's urban regeneration company cast its net across the Atlantic. Joey Gardiner meets Adam Wasserman, a man with a proven track record of turning around problem areas.
After just three months in the UK, Adam Wasserman has already got the measure of British regeneration. His conclusion? We think too much.
"Sometimes there's too much discussion," he says. "There's a lot of talk, a lot of study, a lot of meetings, and I will tell you that sometimes that's frustrating."
Landed with one of the toughest jobs in regeneration - selling Hull to the rest of the country - Wasserman is a man who wants action, not words. But he's no brash American salesman: rather than pumped-up and sharp-suited, Wasserman is laid-back, thoughtful and insistent. A deal-maker, clearly; a businessman, yes; but he's quietly confident, rather than slick or showy. And his track record, which includes turning around desperate areas such as Baltimore and Brooklyn, explains that confidence: this is a man who gets things done.
However, Wasserman definitely has his work cut out. Despite a fine Victorian city centre and some economic green shoots, Hull is in all kinds of trouble.
It has lost nine per cent of its population in 20 years, and while the port of Hull - once the main employer - is still successful, its mechanisation has cost hundreds of jobs. An hour by car from both Leeds and Sheffield, and an hour by train from the East Coast Main Line, Hull looks isolated.
On top of this, the council has been notoriously troubled. Hull is now the only council in the country with a "poor" rating from the Audit Commission, incurred thanks to its "immature" political culture and an inability to tackle massive housing problems (Regeneration & Renewal, 14 November 2003, p5). Two years ago the town was made one of the nine housing market renewal pathfinders, but repeated delays in the development of a renewal strategy mean that, uniquely, it has still not secured government funding.
Amidst these woes, Wasserman's recruitment was a coup for urban regeneration company Hull Citybuild, and it comes on the back of other high-profile local appointments - both the council and the pathfinder have new chief executives. The question is: will Wasserman be able to turn things around?
His record is certainly encouraging. In the 1990s, the New York suburb of Brooklyn had huge deprivation problems. But Wasserman attracted $1 billion in private investment, let 344,000 sq metres of office space to tenants, and developed 371,000 sq metres of offices. Now, he says, the area is thriving. Wasserman performed a similar trick in the declining steel town of Baltimore, attracting $400 million of private sector investment.
And he thinks he can do the same in Hull: "The energy that Baltimore had, I see here - that energy in the public sector, the private sector, the whole deal," he says. "Now people come from all over the world to Baltimore."
Mirroring his US work, Wasserman will concentrate on attracting private sector investment. Problem number one is Island Wharf, Citybuild's flagship new £15 million office scheme. Just before Wasserman arrived, prospective tenant Northern Foods decided to pull its 200-person head office out of Hull, and this prime waterfront development has not yet secured a tenant.
Wasserman concedes that "we will have a hard time justifying our market if we don't show progress on that building". But he's confident of letting the property soon: "There is interest out there. The question is more: what tenant?"
After Island Wharf, Wasserman will have the city centre to deal with.
Hull's city centre masterplan, drawn up by Roger Tym and Partners, has won widespread support (Regeneration & Renewal, 19 March 2004, p4). This is no mean achievement in the city's hothouse political atmosphere. It envisages 5,200 jobs created by £1.5 billion of commercial investment, and 3,000 new homes in the city centre. Wasserman says he's close to signing a deal for the city's first four-star hotel, and he's keen to see progress on developing the banks of the river Hull to open up a new waterfront living area.
The most important long-term deal, however, is out of his hands. The main dual carriageway from West Yorkshire to Hull port runs right along the town's Humber frontage, completely cutting off the attractive marina and "fruit market" area from the city centre. Opening up this spot with waterfront restaurants and leisure activities is absolutely crucial to the city's masterplan. However, at an additional cost of nearly £200 million, redirecting Castle Street underground will require central government help - help that has, so far, not been forthcoming. While Wasserman speaks in measured tones, it's easy to sense his frustration: "It's a large project in a mid-sized city, but it's strategically important. Why can Castle Street not be seen as a road project important to the whole North, and therefore the country, and its economic strategy? I need to understand that."
More positively, Wasserman is confident that two retail developments, St Stephens and Quay West, will finally deliver the top name shops that will persuade Hull residents to stay local. But questions do remain: most specifically, about who will supply the bulk of the £157 million of public funding seen as crucial to delivery of the masterplan. Rumours abound - denied by Wasserman - that regional development agency Yorkshire Forward is waiting to see concrete evidence of progress, and has so far been less than forthcoming about funding the URC. As yet just £65 million is signed, sealed and delivered.
From all angles, though, the appointment of Wasserman seems a shrewd move by the URC. With the strategic and political groundwork largely completed by his predecessor, Neil Bradbury, the time is ripe for a deal-maker - someone who knows and understands the private sector. But Wasserman will also require a formidable political intelligence if he is to negotiate the viper's pit of Hull's local politics. After years of decline, the city needs him to succeed.
1962: Born, Washington DC.
1986: Becomes project development manager at the New York City Public Development Corporation.
1987: Made economic development coordinator of Prince George's County Executive's Office in Washington.
1988: Manager of commercial revitalization at Baltimore County Economic Development Commission (BCEDC).
1992: Becomes deputy director of BCEDC.
1995: Made director of strategic business development at the Central and South West Corporation.
1997: Appointed director of Arlington Economic Development in Washington.
2004: Appointed chief executive of Hull Citybuild.