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.
2021/22 Annual Report
Arts Leisure & Entertainment - Looking back
The In recent years the arts, leisure and entertainment scene in the town has been dominated by the decision to replace the Public Halls, which are owned by St Albans City and District Council (SADC), in Southdown Road with a new arts facility in Rothamsted Park. The replacement of the aging Public Halls, which were no longer fit for purpose, was strongly advocated by the Society from the outset. The Society actively sought to maximise public participation in defining the facilities that would be required of the new centre. There was strong and effective cooperation between SADC, the Society and local people as the project progressed.
The outcome of this process was the decision to repurpose the former Sports Centre in Rothamsted Park. The implementation of the decision took far longer than was anticipated thanks to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the difficulties, the conversion was eventually completed in 2021. There is general agreement that the new Arts Centre, now officially named the Eric Morecambe Centre (EMC) after the nationally-renowned comedian who resided in Harpenden for much of his life is, with its 511-seat theatre, a fine new addition to the town's resources.
It has been repeated many times over by SADC that the new facility would be more than just a direct replacement for the Public Halls: it would be an arts and cultural hub for the whole town. To this end SADC accepted the Society's suggestion that a User Group be formed to enhance public participation in determining how the facility could best be developed to suit the needs of the local arts community. Everyone has accepted that whilst local groups and individuals would like to have easy access to the centre's facilities, the income raised from such users would be fairly minimal and that in order to sustain the financial health of the facility an extensive programme of commercial entertainment activities would be essential.
Constructive meetings of the User Group were initially held, but the meetings were discontinued at the outset of the covid pandemic and, regrettably, have yet to be reinstated. It could be argued that the activities currently being offered at the EMC are not fundamentally different from those that were offered at the former Public Halls. A challenge for the future is to make the EMC feel more like a community facility rather than a municipal institution. That, of course, would require an active input from the public - but the Society feels that encouraging this would not only make a positive contribution to the well-being of the town, but also that this was what SADC originally had in mind - and, we believe, still does. There are real opportunities for our community to unlock the potential of the excellent facilities offered by the EMC and thus strengthen the expression and appreciation of the arts in the town.
The existing Public Halls have continued to be used as a NHS Vaccination Centre: but this arrangement is likely to end soon. The Society has helped facilitate public involvement in determining the way this site will be redeveloped, and SADC's current intentions well reflect the aspirations of both the public and the Society.
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.