The idea behind The Tower Digital Arts Centre was to bring digital technology and the arts together under one roof to service the local community.
Originally staging live theatre and musical shows, The Tower has evolved to bring first release local cinema back to the town centre and now comprises two screens, a music academy and the only accredited Apple training facility in the west of Scotland.
It has even spouted a sister charity, The Submarine Trust, which houses a real, full-size Royal Navy submarine encased in a 360-degree cinema screen which uses 24 4K cinema projectors.
The cinema screens are used to stream live performances from around the world, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House and the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, as well as the latest releases.
Musical performances and theatre shows run by local community groups are also staged at The Tower, as are daytime ‘Silver Screenings’ for older members of the community.
The development of young people is central to much of the work at The Tower, with a number of training programmes and academies hosted on site, most of which are fully subscribed.
A community academy for folk music currently has around thirty children involved, while the newly-formed digital photography society had over sixty members from its very first meeting.
Industry standard digital coding classes are also available to young people in the area – making The Tower the only Apple-accredited training centre in the west of Scotland.
Run entirely by volunteers, the coding club hosts around 15 children every Saturday, offering those with an interest and aptitude outside of school access to the latest software and coding techniques.
Video editing, TV production and graphic design courses are also available from The Tower’s Apple lab and training centre.
A second charity, The Submarine Trust, has recently been added to the premises, developing local heritage around the nearby naval base at Faslane.
The centre has managed to acquire an ex-service Royal Navy submarine and has built a 360-degree 4K cinema around it, with 24 projectors creating an immersive museum learning experience for visitors.
Animations of the inner workings of the submarine have been developed onsite by the coding club, and will be textured, modelled and then projected onto the outside of a submarine to illustrate the life of a submariner.
“We’re tending to use the resources of the whole place…The Tower is looking at entertainment, visual arts and learning, whereas the Submarine Centre is looking at heritage but the facilities that we’ve got are interchangeable,” founder Brian explains.
Hauling a submarine through the wall of a church hall might seem like a fairly extreme way to get young people’s attention, but Brian explains that this is part of the ever-evolving challenge to keep young minds engaged.
“The Tower was set up with young people in mind, this idea of engaging with the arts but making sure that technology was at the forefront of that engagement – it’s part of our remit,” Brian explains. “We have to think about what interests and excites people.”
Promoting and developing from within ensures that young people at The Tower always have a pathway.
A good example is the coding club – after initially getting support from Apple to build the Apple Lab and becoming a certified training centre, a former student of the coding club now runs the classes for 15-20 young people every Saturday. He’s still only 20 years old himself.
Volunteering is also key to The Tower’s operations, with the majority of staff made up of young people from Helensburgh and the surrounding area.
“We have a lot of people who get involved as volunteers because they struggle a bit with their confidence, they have some issue going on and maybe they’ve never worked before and they feel that this may be a way to help them get experience.
“If they’ve been volunteering for a year or more, we have some paid ushering jobs which volunteers always get. All the ushers are all ex-volunteers and they then work side by side with the new volunteers, who they mentor.”
Founder Brian’s entrepreneurial verve is evidenced both by the breadth of activity that goes on at The Tower and by the ingenuity of the Submarine Centre.
The two cinema screens bring in a steady, reliable income which makes up a large part of The Tower’s current enterprise revenue.
Daytime screenings for community groups has proved a success, so much so that certain film screenings are now part of a social prescription scheme at the local GP, with The Tower receiving funding for it as part of a service level agreement.
There are three spaces available for function and event hire: a concert hall, a studio and a fully-equipped computer training room. Rooms can be hired for private screenings or other functions, with a comprehensive package of digital services available on request.
Brian uses the surpluses of The Tower’s more robust income streams to ensure that training for young people can be offered for free, while The Tower’s other activities can be subsidised.
He also puts a great emphasis on cost management by using the latest technology cloud-based software for volunteer scheduling, payroll, booking systems, accounting and staff management etc.
Finally, the Submarine Centre provides an exciting array of fundraising opportunities. Rather than sit the sub on the floor of the museum, it is suspended 10ft from the floor to allow for unique events, parties and dining experiences underneath it. There are also plans in place to use the centre as a broadcast centre for live musical events.
Always keen to develop new revenue streams, work is underway at The Tower to build a glass roof over an adjacent courtyard which will allow the Tower to build a café for customers, as well as cater for functions in the evenings.
Asked about the benefits of working with young people, Brian was unequivocal: “It’s essential! It’s essential that young people are engaged with the process of building an organisation – if it’s going to be sustainable it has to.”
The obvious benefits of engaging with young people for The Tower is getting an influx of talented young people from the community.
“We’ve got a 20-year-old who runs the coding course here, and he wasn’t a coder – he came through a volunteer through front of house. Now he’s got classes of 10 through the week, 30 at the weekend, and it’s been great.”
Brian is also keen to stress that the value of having young people in the workforce is often underrated.
“I think young people are much more capable than we give them credit for…I remember bringing the head of media courses at one of the biggest colleges in Glasgow to show him the coding school, and he was amazed by how fast this 14-year-old kid was editing. This is an ex BBC producer, editor and he was amazed.
“Young people are looking for ways to contribute and help make a difference. The Tower has changed the way people use and perceive the town centre in Helensburgh. With over 40,000 visitors a year it’s become an important hub for culture, technology and learning, Young people are at the heart of The Tower’s development and the campus is regarded by most as one of the coolest place in Helensburgh.
“We’ve got a 20-year-old who runs the coding course here, and he wasn’t a coder – he came through by volunteering at the front of house. We asked for a volunteer to run the course and he jumped at the opportunity. Now he’s got classes of 10 through the week, 30 at the weekend, and it’s been great.”
“Young people are the lifeblood of any organisation and finding different ways to get them engaged is important.
“I think the role of young people is absolutely critical to what we do.”
The Tower has changed the way people use and perceive the town centre in Helensburgh. With over 40,000 visitors a year it’s become an important hub for culture, technology and learning