Bid to reinvent Darlington Arts Centre under private-public partnership plan

Natalie Woolman
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New private sector plans could transform Darlington Arts Centre into a boutique hotel and space for cultural organisations including Theatre Hullabaloo.

Darlington Borough Council announced plans at the end of last year to close and sell the arts centre and “use the proceeds from the sale for investment in a new performance venue in the town centre”.

The current proposal, being put forward by investors Andy Bottomley and Graham Thrower, would see the building being converted into a hotel, a “destination restaurant”, gallery space, multi-use venue and an area for new businesses.

Children’s company Theatre Hullabaloo, which is currently based in Darlington Arts Centre, would have its facilities upgraded under the plans.

Thrower said: “Our proposal is at an early stage and there remains much to do to qualify and develop the proposition. However, our aim is to explore the potential to create a commercial arts centre of true national importance and an arts presence of which the town of Darlington can be justifiably proud. And crucially it should be one that, on completion, is commercially viable on an ongoing basis rather than being reliant upon further state or local financial support.

“What we ask for at this stage is simply the time and space to develop the project and to continue to explore the complex financing issues surrounding it,” he continued.

Thrower added that Darlington Borough Council’s offer to the investors to consider providing a six-month window for them to develop the project was “clearly helpful in this regard.”

Alison Clark-Jenkins, regional director for Arts Council England, described the proposal as “exciting”. She said the plan “seeks to explore how private investment and public partnership might provide successful new art and cultural venues – this approach is something we are keen to investigate”.

The council has estimated that the proposed scheme could create up to 100 jobs and has agreed to defer selling the site for six months in order to enter negotiations.

However, these discussions will not prevent the arts centre in its current form from closing this July. Rather, councillors have put back a decision on the sale while they look at this private sector commercial bid in detail. Work to relocate the arts centre’s current tenants, including Theatre Hullabaloo, is ongoing.

Nick Brewster, chair of community organisation Darlington for Culture, which was set up in 2010 to protect arts in the town, said his take on the development was “guarded optimism”.

He explained: “I think the business model is basically to try to put Darlington onto the cultural map nationally and, in that way, feed the hotel and restaurant through the activities that they will draw to the arts centre. Now, that looks to me to be quite a big ask.

“The fact of the matter is the arts centre will still close on July 7, nothing will change that, and whatever these people are proposing, it is not a community arts centre.”

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