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Call to 'cherish' Spalding's South Holland Centre after 'bittersweet' criticism from councillors after cuts

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Councillors should not just judge the South Holland Centre on its financial performance, according to a community arts leader.

Members of a district council committee will meet tonight (Wednesday) to discuss the findings of a task group set up to review the arts venue’s performance.

A report drawn up by the task group said that with ‘sufficient drive, enthusiasm, commercial expertise and good management’ the centre could be a greater asset - but highlighted problems with its appearance, marketing and operation.

South Holland Centre, Spalding (49289922)
South Holland Centre, Spalding (49289922)

The task group interviewed 14 witnesses of which just three - former manager Sally Harrison, Live Promotions’ Colin Ward and Act II Director Karl Gernert, were not councillors or employees of the authority.

Those employees included consultant Jason Lunn, who was paid by the council to help reopen the centre.

Financial figures accompanying the report shows how the taxpayer subsidised the venue to the tune of £248,285.33 in 2019/20 - although this was down from £353,825.35 in 2015/16.

Before the pandemic, the centre cost almost £1million a year to run - and brought in about £750,000 in income.

Campaigners held a minute's applause in solidarity with staff at the South Holland Centre last year.
Campaigners held a minute's applause in solidarity with staff at the South Holland Centre last year.

Councillors want to see a fully-costed business plan for the venue, but Mr Gernert wants to guard against a discussion that is solely about money.

He said: “There’s this notion of it being run more like a commercial enterprise.

“You don’t run a library for profit, you don’t run a play park for profit and an arts centre feels more under that category.”

While he understands that times are tight for local government finances - he feels the benefit of the centre should be measured in more than just its takings.

He explained: “Don’t underestimate the soft power the building has - its cultural value.

“We are coming out of the pandemic where no-one has had anything to do.

“The state of mental health of young people is as bad as I have ever known in 20 years.

“Places like that are more crucial than ever.”

South Holland Centre, Spalding (49289911)
South Holland Centre, Spalding (49289911)

Mr Gernert, who helped spearhead a campaign to safeguard live theatre at the centre, said: “I maintain it still really punches above its weight for the size of the town.

“We have done stuff in Stamford, Boston, Peterborough - there’s no venue like it. It should be cherished so much. It’s such an asset.”

He says criticism of the running of the centre is ‘bittersweet’, given that it comes after council cuts which slashed the wage bill of the centre by more than £200,000.

He said: “Yes the place does need a spruce up and the marketing does need sorting.

“The place could do with a lick of paint - but they had people to do that and they’ve got rid of them.

“I would love to have a box office manned but they have deleted the box office jobs.”

He guarded against laying blame on the staff, adding: “There’s an awful lot of good being done. When staff are left to get on with it the place works because they know what they are doing.”

The task group has also suggested rebranding the centre - and widening its remit to become more of a ‘hub’.

Its report will be heard by the joint performance monitoring panel and policy development panel tonight, where a decision will be made on whether or not to make recommendations to the council’s cabinet as a result.

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