Initial activity has focussed on maximising local participation in the consultation organised by St Albans District Council to determine the requirements for the proposed new Arts and Cultural Centre that will eventually replace the existing Public Halls. The extent to which local organisations and individuals have played constructive roles in this process has been impressive. The new Centre is expected to greatly enhance interest in the local arts scene and to bring much-needed cohesion to the town's artistic and cultural life.
As soon as planning permission for the new Centre has been secured the Group will work to ensure that the activities and facilities of the new Centre adequately meet the needs and expectations of the local community. It will support all initiatives aimed at ensuring that there is a successful launch of the new Centre to put it 'on the map' and will work to ensure that local strengths in the arts are effectively showcased when the Centre opens. During the interim period the group will, where appropriate, support initiatives that will help to ensure that the existing Public Halls remain fully functional so that the momentum of our local arts and entertainment groups can be maintained.
Our over-arching concern during the past year has been the manner in which the new Arts Centre in Rothamsted Park, now due to open during the first half of 2021, will be managed and operated. Public participation in the Cultural Centre’s design phase was extensive; the same cannot yet be said of the operational phase.
The new facility was promoted by St Albans District Council (SADC) as an ‘Arts and Cultural Centre’ for the town. As such it will necessarily differ in character significantly from the existing Public Halls. We believe the move to the new building needs to be seen as much more than the mere transfer of leisure and arts activities from one building to another.
The Society actively initiated a dialogue, covering a range of issues, with SADC and 1Life, the company which manages the Public Halls and will fulfill the same role at the new centre. We were pleased at the extent of their interest and that of others (including Harpenden Town Council) in our initial meeting.
We have succeeded in establishing a ‘User Group’ for the new facility and Harpenden Local History Society has concluded its plans to incorporate its long hoped-for museum in the building, which it has been decided, amid some controversy, shall be called the Eric Morecambe Centre.
We continue to seek assurances – so far not with complete confidence – that those who will manage the Centre will have the competence and experience appropriate not only to running a public entertainment venue but also to constructively encourage the development of the skills and interests of the town’s artistic community.
An impressive degree of support and enthusiasm towards ensuring the success of the new Harpenden Arts and Culture Hub – due to open in January 2021 – was shown by an invited group of directly-involved St Albans District officials and councillors at an informal meeting convened by the Harpenden Society. Also represented at the meeting were Harpenden Town Council as well as managers from 1Life, the company which, in partnership with SADC, is responsible for running the present Public Halls and the future Leisure Centre complex.
There was unanimous agreement that the new centre, adjoining Rothamsted Park and accommodated within the shell of the current Sports Centre (due to close in early September), should be much more than a ‘replacement’ for the town’s existing 80-year-old Public Halls. In opening the discussion, Alan Jackson, leader of the Harpenden Society’s Arts, leisure and entertainment group, stressed the need for the new facility to mount a wider and more inspirational variety of events which would attract more people, more often.
That would, he added, necessarily mean engendering a more welcoming ambience than in today’s Public Halls, including for example ensuring, in the new centre’s theatre/cinema auditorium, more comfortable seating. From outside and inside, it should not have the downbeat appearance often, sadly, expected of a municipal facility.
Mr Jackson brought to the meeting a number of illustrations of comparable and thriving arts/leisure centres around the country, as examples of what has been achieved in other towns of similar size to Harpenden. Many of those venues, he pointed out, were open throughout the day, as centres of social as well as cultural activity, typically incorporating café and informal meeting areas.
It was acknowledged by everyone attending the meeting that the new centre needed to be financially viable, even though some cross-subsidy from the projected income from the adjacent new and expanded sports centre and swimming pool complex was necessary if charges for arts/culture hub events were to be competitively attractive.
Cllr Robert Donald, now SADC’s property, commercial and development portfolio holder, stressed that the hub should not be allowed to run at a loss. To that end he said flexibility in the use of the building’s available space was paramount. He indicated however, that following the effective change of council control from Conservative to Liberal Democrat – bringing in new portfolio holders – there was no intention, from a building perspective, to alter the plans.
Cllr Anthony Rowlands, now the portfolio holder for community, leisure and sport, commended the Harpenden Society for holding the meeting, saying ‘we want to be as advanced as we can be, ahead of the scheduled opening in 16 months time’.
Barry Cronin, SADC project manager and his council colleague Tony Marmo, deputy head, commercial and development, emphasised that the original building conversion schedule was revised earlier this year in order to ensure a smooth transition in January 2021 from the Public Halls closing and the new arts/culture hub opening. There would be no need for an interim temporary events venue. Accordingly, bookings for 2021 New Year events, including a likely pantomime, could be made with confidence. On a positive note, Marmo added that preliminary work was currently two months ahead of schedule.
Some concern was expressed by several of those at the meeting as to the relatively ‘hidden’ siting of the new hub, effectively within the precincts of Rothamsted Park, compared with the present Public Halls’ open visibility across Harpenden Common. Some relevant promotional work was therefore probably needed, including new signage.
On the same theme of ensuring the new hub’s visibility and image, the question arose of what the facility should be called. The auditorium area looks certain to carry the ‘Eric Morecambe Theatre’ name, but because the building will encompass so much more than the theatre – including notably a new Harpenden Museum – an appropriate name to be emblazoned on the outside had to be chosen.
Meanwhile, everyone present was in favour of the suggestion from Harpenden Society chairman Phil Waters, that in the coming months the society should hold a public meeting devoted to the subject of the town’s new arts/culture centre. There the people of Harpenden would have the opportunity to hear more about the plans and, importantly, express their views on how the exciting new facility could best be used for their enjoyment and edification.