24th April 2019 Public Meeting

Theatre hub ‘will be ready a year earlier'

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Thanks to an accelerated development schedule, the theatre and cultural hub in the new Harpenden Leisure Centre complex is due to open in January 2021 - a    year earlier than previously envisaged, that is at the same time as the adjacent new sports centre. St Albans District Council's ‘Commercial and Development' portfolio holder Julian Daly, addressing the Harpenden Society's April public meeting, said the programme had been revised for several reasons, not least enabling the existing Public Halls to be closed sooner for revenue-generating redevelopment (as detailed in our Winter newsletter).

However, the consequent need to start converting the present sports centre into the new cultural hub before the new expanded sports centre adjoining the swimming pool is completed will mean, said Cllr Daly, some inevitable disruption for sports centre users. But a temporary gymnasium building is due to be erected on ground to the west of the new sports centre - where a new 92-space leisure centre car park will be subsequently located. 

Such a temporary (though purpose designed) gym building, housing keep-fit facilities especially, will nevertheless require planning permission, which could mean a delay to the programme, though it has been pointed out that, with SADC as both the applicant and the planning authority, any legislative obstacle should be readily surmountable.

Regrettably, not all current sports centre activities will be catered for in the temporary gym. Badminton players for example will, during the expected interim period from March 2020 to the following January, be deprived of Harpenden facilities.  But SADC councillor Annie Brewster, ‘Sports and Culture' portfolio holder, told badminton enthusiasts at the April meeting that courts at two other council-run sports centre, at Westminster Lodge and Cotlandswick (London Colney) would be available to them at no extra cost. One or two in the audience neverthel
ess expressed mild outrage at the prospect of having to travel to the other side of St Albans to pursue their chosen sport.

Swimmers will be similarly unhappy with the planned closure of the main pool for refurbishment from May 2020 until the January 2021 opening of the whole leisure complex. They will have the option of remaining dry or, like the badminton players, traveling to St. Albans
Cllr Daly emphasised that the cost of what amounted to two new leisure facilities was a critical issue. The council was working to its already-declared budget of£18.8 million, towards which £5.5 million would come from the Public Halls redevelopment.  He added that although the sports centre and the cultural hub were  being developed as part of one ambitious programme, it was acknowledged that, as far as ongoing costs are concerned, the former had effectively to subsidise the latter. Sports centre membership was the prime money spinner, though it was hoped the upgraded theatre facility and three adjacent large meeting rooms would, compared with the present large Public Hall, attract new and bigger events, generating more income.

Cllr Brewster pointed out that the design of the new 500-seat ‘Eric Morecambe' theatre, with its banked seating, draws on ideas and experience from St Albans' Abbey Theatre, and will feature such peripheral but important attractions as a crush bar and box office café. Nearby will be Harpenden's own museum, long awaited by the town's local history society, with display areas designed to attract visitors to other parts of the building as well as those specifically interested in Harpenden's heritage.

Will residents in the new Park House apartments, close to the present sports centre, be disturbed by the noise of the building work during its conversion to the cultural hub?  That was one of the questions asked at the April meeting. Cllr Daly asserted that building regulations would ensure minimum disturbance. 
Another question from the floor related to the new leisure centre's car parking requirement, to which Cllr Daly replied that an additional 92 parking spaces would be added, augmenting the existing capacity of the Amenbury Lane car park.  He pointed out however that Hertfordshire County Council levied a £500 tax per car park space: £46,000 per annum for 92 spaces. A suggestion that today's Amenbury Lane car park could be double-decked had been rejected, he said, because, as well as being inordinately costly, the area was designated Green Belt and such a project would therefore be untenable.

Julian Daly: ‘Valuable project experience from Westminster Lodge'.(above)
Annie Brewster: ‘Sports centre more remunerative than arts and culture hub'. 
Elevation views of the new Sports Centre and pool areas