The 2023 Swansea Conference, which took place on March 29, brought 120 exhibitors and around 1500 delegates to Swansea Arena for discussions about Swansea’s strengths, opportunities and how to make it a better place to live, work and visit.

The conference opened with a regeneration update in which Swansea council leader Rob Stewart outlined the council’s regeneration progress and its vision for Swansea.

He highlighted many schemes that will bring more people to live and work in the city centre, including the development of 71-72 Kingsway.

He said: “It’s due to open next year and is part of the wider regeneration of the city centre. It’ll be an innovation hub with room for around 600 people to work there. And of course, those people will take time each day to shop and spend some money to support our other businesses and city centre.”

He added that work is underway to transform the former BHS building into a new local services hub that will be home to archives and a new library.

He said: “It will also contain a host of local services so that people are Swansea can come and get all of the services in one place right in the heart of the city centre.”

On the subject of the former Debenhams store in Swansea Quadrant Shopping Centre, he said: “Securing a retail use there is the next step of our plan. With others, we’ll look at how the building can be refurbished and adapted for future uses.

“Creating a long-term, vibrant future for this unit will help protect the city centre and encourage existing and new retailers to continue investing in our city.

“It will also support plans led by our long-term regeneration partner, Urban Splash, who are on board to redevelop a number of key sites in the city centre and on the waterfront.”

Since the conference it has been revealed that the council is to receive £2.85m funding from the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns programme to help purchase the ex-Debenhams unit, in the heart of the Quadrant Centre.

Now the purchase has been completed, the council has started its search for retail tenants, following initial discussions with a number of parties.

Swansea’s Debenhams was one of many of its stores across the UK which closed down in 2021 after the company went into administration.

A panel discussion on supporting local food and drink saw the launch of Swansea Food charter and the announcement of grant funding to help connect people with local food production. Both initiatives are led by Bwyd Abertawe, the sustainable food partnership and network for Swansea.

Dawn Lyle, interim chair of Bwyd Abertawe, said: “The food charter is a way for us to all collaborate and work together to be a strong voice for Swansea food, to connect the dots of all the good things that are happening and figure out between us how we can scale that and how we can grow the demands and the capacity for local food.

“It’s encouraging that Welsh Government seems to recognise the importance of local food partnerships in this space, and Bwyd Abertawe in partnership with the council has secured some funding from Welsh Government purely for building networks, building the movements around local and sustainable food. It’s great to have that acknowledgement from Welsh Government that local collaboration is important.”

A panel discussion on creativity in Swansea included an announcement on progress to form a Creative Swansea network to connect the city’s creative community.

Tracey McNulty, head of Cultural Services at Swansea Council, said: “Over the months we’ve been having various conversations with both universities as well as partners including 4theRegion about a new Creative Swansea and that would need a multiple agency approach to own a website and a social media platform.”

She added she has recently made funding applications to support the creation of a co-ordinator role for the new network.

The final panel discussion of the day addressed the challenges and opportunities faced by independent retail in the city. A panel of local retailers highlighted the fact that covid had motivated them to step up their online offering, but had also supported the growth of their physical businesses: many people connect with the shops online, but visit them to make purchases.

Chairing the panel, Russell Greenslade, CEO of Swansea BID, said that footfall in the city centre is set to increase as a result of new developments in the area.

“Swansea is an amazing place to live, and I think people will remember that and champion that whenever they can,” he said. “We’re very lucky, we just need to tweak it and improve it. As for the foot flow and spend that’s coming, there are two massive office blocks coming that 1,500 people will be working. That’s coming shortly and will get things flowing. It’s going to be a massive boost for the areas. There are some really strong tenants and a lot of it has been let and that’s before it’s out of the ground, so it’s all really positive stuff.”

The conference was organised by Dawn Lyle and Zoe Antrobus, co-founders of 4theRegion, a membership alliance working to bring about positive change in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire.

Concluding the conference, Dawn Lyle said:

“It’s been a fantastic day. It’s all about supporting local. This is our city, and the future of Swansea is in all of our hands. We can look to the council and say they should do this and they should do that, but at the end of the day we can do so much, as the people and the businesses and the organisations that live and work here and that love this place, to help it have a flourishing future.

“Events like today are really important so that we connect with that sense of purpose for our city and for our communities. I’m very grateful to everyone who took part in it and who supported myself and Zoe in putting the event together. Everybody’s participation, as visitors, as exhibitors, and as panellists, is so much appreciated. We’re very much looking forward to returning again next year.”

The conference was well received by visitors old and new. One newcomer was James Hunt, a Pembrokeshire solicitor and a board member of Pembrokeshire Grwp Resilience and North Pembs Trade and Tourism.

“It was only my second visit to Swansea and I discovered yesterday a city of the young and young at heart: proud, creative, resilient and ambitious – that energy and ambition exemplified in session one by the opening slot: civic leadership par excellence in the presentation by Cllr Rob Stewart,” he said.

“There was another treat at 2pm as we learned of the Bwyd Abertawe initiatives to support growing local food. The questions from the floor elicited the wonderful news that a bottom-up civic revolution of food sovereignty and security is well underway, starting with our precious young.

“The stalls were manned with keen advocates from near and far. A buzz was in the air. In short, it was a triumph.”