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.
2020/21 Annual Report
Arts Leisure & Entertainment - Looking back
The main focus of the Society's work to achieve its diverse objectives in the arts, in leisure and in public entertainment has long been on the future of the town's Public Halls in Southdown Road. Five years ago the owners, St Albans City and District Council (SADC), following in part initiatives taken by the Society to draw attention to the issue, recognised they were no longer fit for purpose. An integrated project was formulated that would involve converting the swimming pool in Rothamsted Park into a multi-functional sports centre and simultaneously repurposing the existing sports centre as a replacement for the Public Halls. The Society was very active and effective in helping to maximise public participation in the project's formulation. Importantly, we were promised more than just a replacement for the existing Public Halls: the new facility would be an arts and cultural centre for the town.
To ensure that the new arts facility would be financially viable it would need to feature local organisations and stage popular performances that would attract people from outside Harpenden.
The Covid pandemic has had a dramatic effect with three specific impacts on the project described above. Firstly, the pandemic had a direct impact on the completion date for the repurposing of the former sports centre: the arts centre now opening up to nine months later than had been planned. Secondly, hopes that the centre (now officially named the Eric Morecambe Centre) could be launched with an ambitious arts festival have been dashed: such a festival would have required a lead-in time of at least a year. Finally, the existing Public Halls have been temporarily acquired by the NHS for use as a Vaccination Centre.
A User Group for the new Centre has held two meetings, but due to Covid restrictions has not met during the period under review. Through this Group the Society will aim to ensure that the facilities at the new EMC are affordable to local organisations, that the Centre is used at least 50 percent of the time by local groups and that an inspirational and uplifting programme of arts and cultural events is staged in addition to the high revenue-earning popular concerts.
Although not strictly an arts and entertainment issue, the Group has taken an active part in formulating proposals for determining the use to which the existing Public Halls site will be put after the Halls have been demolished. A broadly satisfactory outcome has been achieved, but implementation has inevitably been delayed whilst the site is being used by the NHS.
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.