I often say that I have no particular passion for The Burns Monument, yet I have returned to the issue several times over the last ten years or so. Why?
Kilmarnock has been my home for over 30 years. Over that time I have had an interest in various cultural activities, mostly music related. I think that culture matters, both socially and economically. It saddens me to see the monument in such a state because I feel that it reflects a general lack of vision and pride in our town.
The Pilgrims landed on the shores of America full of vision. The first year they established a town, the second year they elected a council. In their third year the council proposed building a road five miles into the wilderness for westwards expansion. But the people criticised it as a waste of funds. Amazing! Once they had been able to sea across oceans to the New World, now they could not see five miles down the road. There is a parallel here in Kilmarnock but it appears that in our case it is the Council that has become tired.
The Burns Monument is a figurehead building, its decline mirrors a deeper malaise in the town. I have been interested in town centre issues for a long time and a few years ago this interest was ‘brought into focus' so to speak, through the lens of a camera. A local charity, Allies, was looking for premises for a drop in café and I had just bought a second hand camera. To try out the camera, I walked round the town centre taking photographs of closed down shops and other premises that might be suitable. Prior to this I had no idea how many empty commercial premises there were. Half way through my task, I had to pop into Boots for another film. I have asked many people how many closed shops they thought there were in the central part of the town. Most people underestimated the answer by a significant margin. Over the years I have repeated my photographic tour several times. I have photographs of Portland Street just before it was demolished, I have photographs of the new shops that were opened, and I have photographs of these new shops closing down.
Something must be done to bring life back to the town centre. Vandalism and anti-social behaviour – or more accurately, fear of anti-social behaviour – are taking the life out of the town. It is difficult to sustain town centre restaurants and audiences at the Palace Theatre are put off by the thought of walking through the underpass to reach the bus station. The town centre is effectively a ‘no go' area after 7pm to the majority of the population of Kilmarnock. I find that situation unacceptable.
I am under no illusion that there is a simple answer to the problems of the town centre, but I have lost confidence in the corporate solutions – with hired consultants telling us that edge of town supermarkets have little negative impact on town centres whilst privately acknowledging their impact on local shops.
What has all this to do with The Burns Monument? In many respects the town centre issues mirror those of the Burns Monument. The vandals are again setting the agenda.
The monument has suffered from the vandalism of neglect. Our public bodies have a poor track record in the management of our public buildings. The constant cry is ‘there is no money'. The Lottery won't solve the problems of Kilmarnock. When there has been money to spend on the monument it has been wasted. We need the vision first; if the ideas are good enough the money will be found.
The burning down of the Burns Monument is a watershed, a wake up call. The Kay Park and the monument were gifted to the town by people of vision. We do them, and ourselves a disservice, if we lose that vision.