As a Newton Abbot councillor I receive many messages and emails asking for my support to retain the Alex as a working theatre.
If this can be delivered and have a sound financial and management base to secure its future that this is my preferred option for the building.
The key to this is the need to justify to Teignbridge residents why they should invest millions to bring the internal structure up to the required standards. There is also the need to convince Newton Abbot why they should be prepared to provide ongoing financial support to cover any shortfall in running costs.
The reasons for these questions comes from seeing the initial business case where the theatre would be in use for six weeks every year and used for various other activities for the rest of the time, Staffing would be by part time employees and a reliance on grants to subsidise costs.
I know that those looking to retain the theatre are trying to pull together a financial case that meets the on going costs and I sincerely hope they succeed.
There are additional issues that arise that impact on the overall project that must also be considered.
Firstly, the current cinema is well below the standards provided in competing cinemas and the Alex cannot be expanded to provide the facilities needed. The need to offer a wider range of choices in more modern environments with the amenities expected today is a major reason why a new build is necessary. The economic case for the proposed number of screens is built on the expertise of the current cinema operators.
The fundamental question here will therefore be if the new cinema is not built, how longer would Newton Abbot have a cinema?
Also, when considering the Market Hall, the role of Newton Abbot as a market town has changed significantly over the last 30 years.
We have seen the open air market lose its trade to Exeter such that almost no farm trade takes place here and the outdoor market area is in serious need of redevelopment as it is becoming delapidated. Exeter built new facilities at Matford and farmers moved their sales to the new location because of the better facilities and proximity to the M5.
At the same time we have seen the gradual decline in the indoor market such that we now have only a few excellent stalls and a lot of vacant or very limited range of goods and services being offered
The issue for Teignbridge Council is that keeping the market open in its present form is costing Teignbridge tax payers a significant (6 figure) sum every year and this deficit is increasing at a time that the council has a black hole in its finances moving forwards so there is a risk that we will lose the market if nothing is done as it is inevitable that none statutory services could be cut.
This situation was recognised some five years ago, which is why people who had successfully addressed identical issues in similar sized towns were commissioned to look at what could be done to save the market and re energise the town centre.
They were retained to come forward with the proposals that led to the Government giving the District Council £9.2 million to effect the changes needed to keep our town as a market town with the modern range of facilities needed to support the excellent stall holders we currently have but also provide the space for those first stage embryo businesses that need a showcase for their products together with a flexible design so that any change in need or use could be easily accommodated.
We also have two public buildings close to the cinema with the space and facilities needed to meet current demands for everything except a proscenium arch. Passmore Edwards library has a range of facilities that are available for use and the Courtney Centre also has facilities that are suitable for groups, meetings or other activities so the potential competition from a repurposed cinema must be considered in any plans.
The two other modern theatres in the town, (each part of schools) and within 200 mtrs of the Alex were built with public grants requiring public use so must also be considered (one is currently advertising for users).
Given that the Alexandra Cinema and Market Hall are within a listed structure, the protected 19th century fabric cannot be demolished although the building additions made in the 60s and 70s can be removed to expose the original buildings.
Therefore, the choices open to the councillors are difficult and some of the questions to be asked are below
1) Is it possible to keep the Cinema as is
2) Is a smaller new cinema possible
3) Can the cinema be converted into a new theatre and at what cost
4) Can a financial justification be made to support the theatre
5) Can the market hall and Market Square be upgraded to provide the space and facilities needed to be successful
6) What is the impact of any choices on existing facilities
7) Do we have to do anything
8) What happens if we do nothing
9) Can we spend the £9.2 million on a variation of the government approved project
The answers are ‘No’, ’Possibly’ or ‘Yes’ and whatever comes forward it will take a lot of soul searching by councillors to make the decision but the outcome must be built on the balance of information provided and a vision for Newton Abbot for the next 50 years.
We all want to see Newton Abbot as a successful, vibrant market town that is capable of meeting the demands of future generations.
The ideal scenario is a combination of everything, a new cinema, a repurposed theatre and a bright lively market. Whilst this may be impossible I hope it is possible and wait to see what information comes forward to make this a reality.