SAVE THE CONNAUGHT Delay for Worthing theatres’ future

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A NEW report has given a damning indictment of the Connaught Theatre’s history – but also boosted the hopes of campaigners fighting to save the closure-threatened venue.

However, protesters will have to wait until at least September for a decision – long after the local elections.

John Thorpe, the borough council’s executive head of leisure and cultural services, said: “Anyone who was at the 75th anniversary of the Connaught will have listened to a history of the venue, which, depending on your point of view, was a triumph of survival, or a catalogue of financial failure, closure, bankruptcy and bail outs.”

But his report said consideration should be given to retaining the Connaught if proposed improvements to the Pavilion could not be carried out due to strict heritage rules.

Best choice

A recent theatres review suggested a fly tower and 1,000 tiered seats be installed at the Pavilion, but planners warned the work was unlikely to be given listed building consent.

Mr Thorpe said: “Without these changes and in purely cultural programming terms, the Connaught would be the best choice as a future performing arts venue.”

However, an alternative use would first have to be found for the Pavilion, so it was not directly competing with the Connaught, to the financial detriment of both.

Past proposals for the Pavilion, which needed more than £750,000 spent on it, mainly on a new zinc roof, had included a casino, super pub, nightclub and arts centre –none of which had proved viable.

Alternative use

There were also problems finding alternative uses for the listed Assembly Hall.

The report considered the possibility of a trust taking over one or more of the venues, but also urged caution.

Mr Thorpe said: “The most recent Connaught Theatre Trust ceased trading and had to be rescued by the council in 1999.

“While it is too early to say with any certainty, it is unclear if any proposals will emerge that have any greater chance of success than any of the previous arrangements.”

It was feared a “small, single facility trust, such as the former Connaught Theatre Trust, was likely to be too financially fragile to survive without signficant on-going public sector financial support”.

A larger trust, operating several venues, possibly including theatres and leisure centres, would allow costs to be spread wider.

But if the trust failed, the council might have to “pick up the pieces”.

Investment needed

Mr Thorpe said the future of the Connaught, Pavilion and Assembly Hall, which needed investment of £13million to make them fit for purpose, was “in the mix” as the council sought to slash spending by more than £4million due to government cost cutting, but no decisions could be taken without more investigations.

He proposed a further report be considered in September after the council had advertised for expressions of interest in the future management and/or acquisition of any or all of the venues.

Up to £20,000 should be released from council reserves so specialist advice could be sought.

Meanwhile, the report recommended 12 months notice be given to Sussex Theatre Organ Trust, which operated the Wurlitzer organ at the Assembly Hall, and no classical concerts be booked, during the summer, for the Assembly Hall after May 2012.

The cabinet will consider the report, which also refers to Field Place, offloading Davison Leisure Centre, and the need to spend at least £3.5 million on Worthing Leisure Centre, at its meeting today (Monday, March 21) at 6pm.