Sharp Project hires CBRE to handle data centre space

James Graham

CBRE has been appointed to handle the leasing of the data centre element at East Manchester's Sharp Project as the media facility moves towards self-sufficiency.

The 250,000 sq ft Sharp Project is home to 45 companies specialising in digital media production and has four sound stages used by TV drama and film producers.

But it sees the provision of 28,000 sq ft of data centre space underneath a sound stage as an essential part of its business plan. The boom in cloud computing – where data is stored remotely on the internet – has driven demand for data centres which store numerous racks of computer servers.

"Data centres pay more than drama," jokes former Granada managing director Sue Woodward, pictured, who has overseen the transformation of the site in Newton Heath from a Sharp Electronics warehouse to a cutting-edge media facility.Sue Woodward

That three-year process, which was funded with £16.5m from Manchester City Council, the European Regional Development Fund and the North West Development Agency, is now coming to an end. From April 2012 it will have to be a self-sustaining enterprise although Woodward declined to say how much the centre needs to break even, citing commercial sensitivity.

A six megawatt power supply combined with powerful internet connectivity through its own fibre means it is a desirable location for data centre businesses.

"We've got space, power and connectivity", says Woodward. "We had so many people coming to us, too many to have a conversation with, so we've passed them to CBRE to assess their offers and come back to us."

The sound stages, which range in size from 4,000 sq ft to 28,000 sq ft, have hit a 65% occupancy target this year and have been used recently for the production of the Sky 1 comedy drama Mount Pleasant, Channel 4's Fresh Meat and a film about Sir Matt Busby called Theatre of Dreams.

There is also a recording studio on a 10-year lease and office space and facilities aimed at production crews and companies at various stages of development. The cheapest are converted shipping containers at £45 a week, while offices start at 16.50/sq ft – including £6 of service charges – rising to £18.50 for the latest space which has just become available.

There is now a waiting list for the containers and the offices at £16.50/sq ft are 65% let. Another revenue stream is a membership scheme allowing people to use an open plan 'campus' area.

"Our primary objective is to develop the sector and encourage new businesses and new jobs," says Woodward. "We have to be a business that washes its face – to cover all our costs. We can't expect a hand-out.

Sharp Project"People used to say you're very brave, which is short for 'you must be a mad woman', but I knew we could get this right. But it's not easy. The answer isn't to just go to a property agent or to build a building and say 'they will come', it's a much more complicated and complex situation.

"At the Sharp Project everything has been thought through from the carpet tiles, to the coffee on sale, to every single revenue stream. Everything has been discussed and debated – it's been put through the mincer."

Over in Salford the Peel Group has also spent the past three years pulling a media centre together which has attracted big name tenants – the BBC, ITV and the University of Salford. It has the Greenhouse for smaller media businesses and sound stages at the Pie Factory. But Woodward sees no overlap.

"You would never ask that question in London – 'why have you got Channel 4, Sky, White City and Shoreditch?' There are 73,000 creative and digital employees just in Greater Manchester alone and 320,000 in the North West that push £13bn into the economy. Outside London we're it. We're not just the second city, we're the other city in the media and content market in Europe.

"The question isn't 'why does Manchester have Media City and the Sharp Project?' The question is 'what's the next biggest digital and media cluster going to do next?' We should be more confident in our own ambition."

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