A £30m theatre plan could signal the creation of a new waterfront in Chester. BARRY ELLAMS reports
IF the University moves to County Hall and the curtains rise on the £30m theatre on The Roodee, it could be as vital to Chester economic future as Albert Dock was to Liverpool.
In the eighties when, according to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Chester was jewel of the North West and Liverpool was in severe decline, cabinet minister Michael Heseltine identified the derelict docks as a regeneration asset to spark the city’s renaissance.
A formula of tourism, expanding university population, shopping and The Duke of Westminster’s £1bn investment in Liverpool One has spun the wheel of fortune around. In 2009, it is Chester that is getting the wrong headlines.
The closure of The Odeon and The Gateway has been a disaster for a heritage city of Chester’s stature and reputation. Newspapers including The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian labelled the former Roman garrison a ‘cultural desert’.
Chester MP Christine Russell who campaigned against the closure of the Odeon, warned of the loss of revenue that cultural facilities create.
She warned: “For every £1 of public money spent on cinema or theatre £20 is spent on the local economy. Look how the arts have transformed Liverpool and Manchester.”
Wrexham has a new performing arts centre and an Odeon, Runcorn has the Brindley Theatre, Cheshire Oaks and Greyhound Retail Park have cinemas. Where there is culture there is disposable income and Chester is losing its grip on high spend visitors.
Owner of Kites Aloft on Bridge Street Rows, Howard Harrison, voiced deep fears for Chester’s ‘loss of face’.
He told The Chronicle: “If you talk to someone who has been to Chester for the day, they will say it’s a lovely place. If they are here for a second day, they will comment that there wasn’t much to do at night. By day three, if they are still here, they will have noticed how shabby and dirty the place is.”
After the Northgate Development stalled, The Chronicle campaigned to Save The Gateway to reenergise the flagging Northgate quarter and bring a temporary solution to Chester’s lack of family entertainment.
We received thousands of signatures to a petition calling for the theatre to be re-opened.
When asked in an online survey “Do you support our campaign to bring back Chester’s Gateway Theatre?” 98% responded “Yes”.
Roger Moore, Ken Dodd, Tim Firth, Glenda Jackson and Rodney Bewes added their weight to our campaign.
As a city with an expanding hospitality sector, the council plans will be a long-awaited shot in the arm during the recession.
The £30m theatre is ambitious with a large auditorium complemented by studio facilities for art, dance, cinema and musical events.
A theatre, council headquarters, a new university campus at County Hall, the racecourse and The Groves could potentially all be within a leisurely stroll. A golden mile of development.
Much of Chester’s power will have shifted from its centre to the riverside as retailers await the ill-fated Northgate Development to bring new shops and new ideas into this once vibrant quarter.
If a £30m theatre on the banks of the Dee is to help create a waterfront for Chester, the city centre bars and restaurants must benefit from the theatre going crowds.
Knock-on effects of investment in Chester are evident with the rejuvenated St John Street linking up to The Groves and city centre.
Chris Cook, head of culture and recreation for Cheshire West and Chester believes the development balances Chester’s rich retail history with a revitalised cultural facility.
He said: “There is a need to develop the cultural life of the city alongside its retail, hospitality and tourism offers.”
Cllr Richard Short, executive member, Culture and Recreation, added: “Rightly or wrongly, there is a feeling that Chester has traded on its reputation for some time. The new council intends to remedy this situation for the good of present and future generations.”
James Latham, chairman of Chester in Concert, welcomed the report, saying: “News that our new local authority is considering the creation of a £30m Arts Venue is very much to be welcomed. The estimated cost compares with £12m which was allocated for a new Performing Arts Centre in the Northgate scheme, and is evidence that Cheshire West and Chester council are able to plan with more ambition than the much smaller City Council was able to do.”
However one Chester correspondent wrote: “Could I suggest an alternative study into the “feasibility” of spending about 10% of that money on refitting the Gateway and buying and refurbishing the Odeon rather than resigning them to an inevitable death?”