THE director of one of the UK's most successful new theatres has publicly backed the controversial plans to build a £7m theatre and conference centre in Wrexham.
The project, beset by difficulties from the outset, suffered a fresh blow last month after the authority's second choice to build the 400-seater venue, construction firm Ballast, went into administration, leaving council chiefs red-faced.
Wrexham Council's first choice contractors, GallifordTry Construction, pulled out earlier last month just weeks before work was due to start, blaming 'issues around the cost'. Other building firms are out of the council's price range, calling into question the viability of the project.
But Patric Gilchrist, executive director of Theatre By The Lake in Keswick, Cumbria, visited the proposed site behind Wrexham Library this week, and believes the theatre is a great opportunity for the town.
'Theatre By The Lake in Keswick, a smaller town than Wrexham, opened in
1999. It planned to operate during the summer season only,' he said. 'However, demand turned the theatre into a year-round operation, employee numbers have increased from four to 40 and turnover has increased from £360,000 to £2m, all in a four-year period. Research has shown that there is an annual contribution of £4m into the local economy due to employees' spending and cultural tourism.
'The plans for Wrexham will provide a new theatre, conference centre, art gallery and cafe. I believe it has the potential to be at least as successful, if not more so. Wrexham's new theatre will also provide training in technical theatre skills. This will be a unique facility and a UK centre of excellence for technical theatre training.
'Keswick's new theatre has been far more popular, both with local people and visitors, and has had a much greater impact on the local community than was originally envisaged. I have no doubt that Wrexham will have the same experience.'
Roy McMahon, vice-chairman of the Wrexham Theatre Trust, welcomed the comments: 'The aim of developing this theatre and conference centre has always gone far beyond providing a new entertainment venue. It also has substantial educational and economic value and is part of the ongoing development and improvement of Wrexham town centre.'
Critics of the project have long maintained that the theatre is a 'white elephant', and would steal audiences from existing venues in Wrexham, such as the William Aston Hall and The Stiwt in Rhos.
In July, the National Assembly gave Wrexham Council a financial lifeline with a one-off grant of £660,000 after a £800,000 shortfall in funding was revealed, sparking a furious tirade from Wrexham AM John Marek, who said the scheme had 'descended into farce'.