Wrexham’s Henblas Street has potential but nevertheless still carries the scars of neglect. Not unlike, you might say, the local football club before the 2021 takeover by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
Now, though, if one half of the Hollywood duo gets his way, this disused site — once home to the town’s old Hippodrome Cinema but vacant since 1998 — will be brought back to life in a similar vein to how The Racecourse Ground has once again become the area’s beating heart.
As part of the ongoing birthday pranks between the two co-owners that a year ago saw a blimp sporting an unflattering image of Reynolds’ face flown over the world’s oldest international football ground, McElhenney announced his grand plan on Monday.
He wants to create a community space that will also be capable of staging events. Oh, and he plans to call it the Ryan Rodney Reynolds Memorial Park, complete with “a statue which may or may not look like Ryan” to mark his great friend’s 47th birthday.
Film star Chris Pratt, who rose to prominence in the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation before going on to star in Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers, was roped in to appear in the social media video announcing a scheme that will feature “actual green lanterns”, a mischievous jibe from one Wrexham co-chairman to the other over the big flop of Reynolds’ movie career.
— Rob McElhenney (@RMcElhenney) October 23, 2023
No doubt the Canadian star of Green Lantern laughed along, having made clear his own feelings when playing the lead character in Deadpool 2 and going back in time to kill Reynolds before he could make the 2011 film.
So far, so much of the usual knockabout fare that also saw Reynolds rope in various stars to produce a song, complete with video, to explain how to pronounce his good friend’s name. The previous year, he had commissioned a personalised urinal in one of the Racecourse Ground’s toilets to honour McElhenney.
Beneath the jocularity, however, is a serious step forward for Wrexham. Certainly, the scheme — a website set up alongside Monday’s announcement says the name might be changed to “probably something Welsh, not Canadian” — will be a welcome fillip for a plot of land that until the past couple of years had become something of an eyesore.
Three shops sitting directly across the street from the proposed park sit vacant. Judging by the thick dust on the windows, nothing has been sold here for quite some time.
The site was purchased by Wrexham Council in 2021 and subsequently tidied up, the trees, weeds and bushes that had gradually taken over being cleared away. New signage has gone up this week, both in Welsh and English, promising the new park.
By creating a facility that the council suggests could contain “play facilities, tables and chairs, artworks, street food and even some community cinema with a nod back to the former Hippodrome site”, the hope is it can help regenerate this largely forgotten corner of Wrexham.
Providing the plans, due to be formally submitted to the County Borough Council in the near future, are approved, the new park will be redeveloped and maintained by the football club’s owners — with potential revenue streams underpinning the upkeep.
Looking at the site under the slate grey sky of an autumnal afternoon, the plan might seem fanciful. Certainly, a couple of unimpressed passers-by were adamant, on noting The Athletic’s interest, that the idea could be filed under ‘pie in the sky’.
But similar sentiments were expressed when it first emerged Reynolds and McElhenney wanted to buy the town’s football club. And look how that has turned out, with the Racecourse yet again full to capacity for Tuesday’s visit of Sutton United in League Two.
Four years ago — so not only pre-Hollywood but also pre-pandemic — the two home games closest to October 24 drew crowds of 3,479 (Chesterfield) and 3,569 (Bromley).
Things have changed markedly for the better since then, this latest win against Sutton — clinched by Elliot Lee’s thunderbolt winner two minutes from time — taking Phil Parkinson’s side into the League Two automatic promotion places for the first time.
Ironically considering McElhenney’s surprise choice of gift the previous day, it was far from the stroll in the park many had expected against the bottom club. But, as they usually do, Wrexham found a way to get the win in front of a 10,183 crowd.
For Reynolds, three points and a move up a third place make for the ideal belated birthday present to go with the park that he has promised to “weep in” whenever Wrexham lose a match.
Also happy is the local council, which has been looking for a sustainable project to make use of a plot that was used last year as the finale backdrop for National Theatre Wales’ production, A Proper Ordinary Miracle.
Councillor Mark Pritchard, leader of Wrexham Council, says: “After purchasing the former Hippodrome site last year, we’ve had exactly the same ambition as Rob to bring the space back into use as some sort of community park.
“Rob’s vision fits so well with our ‘placemaking’ ambitions for the city centre and the early proposals for developing it into a pop-up space for our community and attracting visitors to this part of town are really intriguing.
“The bonus of having Rob and Ryan involved in the regeneration of the site with a few quirky ideas that only they can do is fantastic and we’ll look forward to working together as their plans develop.”
(Top photos: Rob McElhenney, Getty Images; courtesy of Wrexham council)