FORMER city MP Christine Russell cast doubt on the viability of the proposed Northgate Development and instead urged Cheshire West and Chester Council to use culture as the catalyst for growth.
The ex-Labour MP questioned where the money was coming from to deliver Northgate at a town hall consultation event and argued the council should get on with converting the former Odeon into a theatre and cinema.
She told the audience: “The administration, do they not realise that trade is really haemorrhaging away from Chester because we have no theatre and no cinema. These plans are better than previous plans, I accept that – it’s still a mall without a roof – but when are we going to get a theatre and a cinema?
“Because at the moment people are having to go to Liverpool or Manchester to see a concert or see a film. If they’re lucky they might see it at the Greyhound cinema but they will probably have to go to Vue.
“Once people have made that journey out of Chester they will do their shopping there and they are going to have their meals there. We have to use culture as a catalyst for redevelopment.”
The Odeon Action Group coordinator worries the council’s ambitious £40m theatre project has been linked to Northgate as the main library would have to move into the theatre to create more capacity within the retail scheme.
And Ms Russell wonders who will pay for Northgate given the council is a minority land-owner because former business partner ING and other private interests retain the lion’s share.
She told council officers: “The decision on whether this goes ahead could be years off. If you have to wait to find a new developer to buy out ING you are never going to start work on creating a new theatre and a new cinema.
“We have been told in the past the council has £22m in the coffers to convert the Odeon. Get that money spent. There are film operators queuing up to get into there. Get it done!”
Mike Burchnall, from the council’s project team, said the Odeon and Northgate schemes were ‘physically related’ but on separate delivery tracks. “We are assuming the theatre happens, it’s not dependent on Northgate,” he said.
Project leader Chris Morland hopes work on Northgate can start on site in 2016 and said research was being refreshed, adding: “Chester is actually quite a good proposition for a scheme even in the economy we have been in. As we’ve moved through this process we have continued to check that out and I’m going to do some more work in terms of the opportunity.”