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Future of Spa Felixstowe under threat

Leisure and entertainment companies from across the country are set to be asked for their proposals for the future use of Felixstowe’s Spa Theatre after Suffolk Coastal’s Cabinet agreed it could no longer afford to give it the necessary long-term financial commitment.

On top of the annual subsidy to help keep the theatre open, it is estimated that at least £3 million would need to be spent in the next few years to maintain and repair the building and bring it up to modern standards.

“We are already spending in the region of £250,000 a year for the existing private theatre company to operate the venue on our behalf. At a time when we are having to bridge a £2.8 million budget gap, this spending along with all our other services has had to be put under the microscope to decide if it really is good value for money and still a priority during these tough times,” said Cllr Geoff Holdcroft, Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Leisure.

“The harsh facts are that the Spa is not generating the audiences it used to nor those enjoyed at comparable venues. It urgently needs a large financial commitment just to get the building up to scratch and to give it a chance to attract the audiences that would make it viable.

“We really cannot afford to make that type of investment, and so we have had little choice but to inform Openwide Coastal that we intend to exercise our option to give notice to end our contract with them. They and any other leisure or entertainment company can come forward with new proposals on what to do with the Spa in the future,” added Cllr Holdcroft.

The Cabinet decision is subject to review through the call-in process, but at present the intention is to withdraw funding at the end of June so allowing Openwide to run the Spa and its full programme up to the end of June 2012.

Last year the Council agreed to bring in consultants to look at the options for the Spa, taking account of the needs of the local community and the requirement for it to be run in a cost-effective way.

Their report has concluded that if no major investments are made the Spa will quickly become unfit for purpose and that the building is already out of date. Audiences at the Spa have been falling to a degree that each ticket was being subsidised by the Council by well over £7.

“Despite the best efforts of Openwide, we are faced with a theatre that is struggling to attract break-even audiences, and a pressing need to both invest in the fabric of the building and in its operating costs that this Council is not in a position to agree to.

“Despite having saved £10m in the last decade, we have to find another £2.8m over the next three years, which given our income from Council Tax payers is only £7.6 million is a considerable task which is why we now have to face up to making tough decisions.

“We will investigate whether a theatre trust like that which has taken over the running of Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre is a way forward. However, we have no choice other than to open up the prospect of running the Spa in the future to the market, to find out what leisure or entertainment proposals and potential investment outside companies and organisations may come up with. We hope to begin the process in January so we can make a firm decision on the Spa’s future by June,” added Cllr Holdcroft.

The ongoing partnership between the Council and Openwide will see both organisations contacting those groups with bookings at the Spa to advise them of how they are affected by this announcement. The Council is ready to assist local community groups to find alternative venues.

“This is disappointing news but we recognise the financial pressures facing the Council, and it has become increasingly clear that the Spa does need a significant and urgent investment to help make it an attractive venue for customers and indeed performers,” said Rory Holburn of Openwide.

“Despite the excellent efforts of our Felixstowe management, we have not been able to attract the audiences required to make the Spa Pavilion Theatre economically viable. In addition, without the financial commitment to upgrade the facilities it will be increasingly difficult to develop and improve the venue in the future.

“The Spa Pavilion will stay fully open throughout the remaining months of our contract and we hope that everyone will take the chance to experience the excellent mix of live performances on offer and give it a magnificent boost into whatever future that can be developed for it,” added Mr Holburn.

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