Two visions were put forward for the future of the amphitheatre during a public meeting at Chester Town Hall but lack of money and the firm stance of Historic England are likely to dictate the outcome.
More than 200 people attended The Big Deebate which considered what to do with the Georgian Dee House which sits atop the ancient monument.
Age-old arguments have resurfaced as Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) prepares to enter into a 150-year lease with what is rumoured to be a hotel operator who would invest the millions needed to bring the dilapidated building back to life.
But campaigners, whose 'Dig up Deva' petition has attracted 14,000 signatures, want the city to instead demolish the grade II-listed Dee House and create an exciting visitor attraction by fully excavating the amphitheatre in a public space with views down to the Dee.
The opposing stance, shared by Historic England who have the power to de-list Dee House, is that it represents an important chapter of Chester’s history and should be preserved – it even has family links with Sherlock Holmes actor Benedict Cumberbatch .
In addition, there is a huge question-mark over how to generate the millions needed to fully excavate the amphitheatre even if it were de-listed.
Chester MP Chris Matheson , who organised and chaired the meeting, introduced the debate which featured a panel with representatives from Chester Growth Partnership, Marketing Cheshire and the Council for British Archaeology North West plus city hotelier Gordon Vickers.
The MP said: “There are several options that are currently on the table and have been, in some cases, for many years. Do we retain Dee House; does it have historical value? We are told by Historic England, who have the keys to this particular club, and are very clear, it does have historic value.
“Do we knock it down? Do we excavate the other half of the amphitheatre? Experts tell us there isn’t any part of that amphitheatre left. But do we excavate any way? Do we build a new amphitheatre as a tourist attraction?”
Businessman and panel member Mr Vickers, who owns The Mill Hotel, received a round of applause when he argued: “We want the amphitheatre; we want the tourism.”
Former councillor David Hull agreed: “This is a glorious opportunity to excavate this fully. I agree with Mr Vickers on this one, we’ve put the cart before the horse. Let’s not build a hotel, let’s get the amphitheatre excavated and then build hotels.”
His ‘plan B’, if Historic England wouldn’t allow Dee House to be demolished, was to dig up the car park of the county court which overlays much of the amphitheatre site.
Fellow supporter Novena Tranter, who described Dee House an ‘an eyesore‘, agreed: “It seems to me, having visited places like Caerleon in South Wales, you could simply remove the surface, grass it over, expose that view down to the river, enhance what is a treasure, St John’s Church, and give the people of Chester and our visitors, a wonderful open space with some really good information boards and let them really appreciate what we have.”
But Dean Paton, managing director of Big Heritage, who was well received by the audience, countered: “Dee House is an ugly building but I have two children and I’m not the best looking person in the world so when do we say something’s value is based on the way it looks or what we personally favour?
“Or when do we place value on something because it is part of the story of our city and it’s not the most beautiful part, but actually it was. It’s one of the only complete Georgian frontages left in the city. That circle in the middle that everyone just ignores is the last carriage turning circle."
He pointed out Dee House was built by the Cumberbatch family - relatives of actor Benedict Cumberbatch of BBC TV's Sherlock fame.
Guy Butler, chairman of the Chester Growth Partnership, says there are bigger priorities than spending millions on the amphitheatre.
“It’s only my opinion but we almost have too many tourist attractions in the city and we’ve too many people spending too little time on those,“ he said. “If we can get people to spend longer and spend more then I’d rather spend the money in a joined-up marketing mechanism with the zoo – so people drive to the zoo and they drive home – they don’t come into the city centre to look at the amphitheatre or go to the Grosvenor Museum .”
He would also prefer to spend public money on an improved transport infrastructure and car parking.
“Everybody keeps saying it’s about the money and it’s about where is that money best spent and it then comes back to the Dee House argument again which is if we can get something done with Dee House with other people’s money and use government money to improve the car parks and rail links then I’d be very happy about that.”
Former Lib Dem city and county councillor Sue Proctor is of a similar mind.
Having followed the ‘sometimes acrimonious debate’ on social media, she commented: “I’m really glad I’m not on the council now because I would hate to have to make the decisions that councillors have to make about priorities because I’m not sure that risking finding Roman remains or not would be my top priority but I do want to see Chester flourish.”
She added: “It’s not just about what happened 2,000 years ago, it’s what’s happened over 2,000 years. I’m not greedy to want to see what’s underneath the amphitheatre if it’s not affordable and achievable.
“What I want to see is an achievable project that will bring visitors to Chester.”
Former Lord Mayor of Chester, Tory councillor Hugo Deynem , wants the Labour administration at CWaC to consider other options and was applauded when he argued the proposed 150-year lease was ‘too long a time to tie up Dee House’.
He said: “Chester has got a wealth of offering, it’s got the wonderful, renowned Chester Zoo. What we’re not able to do is keep people in the city centre for long enough.
"We do not have a Jorvik Centre or a White Castle. So the middle way for me would be that we utilise Dee House as part of a visitor centre.
"If we had an interactive virtual reality-type amphitheatre on the ground floor, imagine children coming in with their parents into a virtual amphitheatre combat arena, that would have the pull that all those other competitive destinations have to retain families in the city centre.
“What about rehousing the Grosvenor Museum, putting that into Dee House –much needed revamp required there, more space required – the point I’m getting to is there are lots of options out there and it doesn’t feel to me as though as we’ve explored all of them thoroughly enough.”