Arts venue gearing up to open after refurbishment
South Shropshire’s premier arts venue has at last revealed plans to reopen in the new year following a multi-million pound refurbishment – but has warned funds are desperately low after a two-year partial closure and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Work has been underway at Ludlow Assembly Rooms since the summer of 2018 to reinstate the original Castle Square entrance, create a redesigned auditorium, new box office, visitor information centre and cafe bar, along with bringing the building up to modern energy efficiency standards.
But while money has been pumped into the transformation of the venue, which is owned by Ludlow and District Community Association (LAR) and run by volunteers, it has struggled to bring in enough revenue to stay afloat.
Ludlow Town Council agreed at a meeting on Monday evening to continue its grant support towards the assembly rooms but rejected pleas from senior figures at the charity to increase the amount of funding.
Applications had been made under the council’s annual core grant scheme for £15,000 towards the running of the Assembly Rooms and an additional £10,000 for the visitor information centre (VIC), but councillors voted to award a total of £15,000, in line with last year.
The charity’s volunteer CEO Helen Hughes told councillors that it was hoped the whole venue would be up and running by February or March 2021.
She said: “Members will know what a difficult couple of years we have gone through since the project started and those who came on a visit will remember the extent of the works that are being carried out. It’s far more than originally anticipated because the building was in such a poor state of repair.
“While we have been shut due to Covid-19 there has been huge investment in the building, in the physical infrastructure, and we will have a state-of-the-art auditorium and VIC.”
Ms Hughes said the charity’s reserves had significantly depleted during the pandemic, and that another grant from the town council would unlock other income opportunities through match-funding.
She said: “It is going to be a real struggle to keep our heads above water.
“It would be madness to let all the capital investment that’s gone into the building go to waste. We really need your support.”
David Burton from LAR told councillors the VIC had moved into the library when the refurbishment work started and the service was able to offer email support when the library was forced to close due to the pandemic.
Councillors said they were willing to continue to contribute to the venue’s running costs but there was criticism that the charity had broken the terms of its last grant by relocating the VIC to the library without first seeking the council’s permission.
Councillor Glenn Ginger said: “If it was another organisation we would be hauling them over the coals. They have got to follow the rules.”
Councillor Erica Garner said she supported the grant application and urged fellow councillors to look at the “bigger picture”.
She added: “Tourism is an absolutely huge part of Ludlow and we should be doing everything we can to bring in more visitors, which will support the market, the holiday accommodation and the independent shops.
“The Assembly Rooms is the most amazing arts and crafts centre and we all know the arts are so important but so under-funded, particularly now.
“I think we owe it to our town and the people who support the Assembly Rooms to grant this application.”
Councillor Ginger suggested suspending the grant completely until the venue reopened, but his proposal was defeated by five votes to four. He then proposed awarding the same level of grant funding as in previous years, saying the council had its own budget worries due to the pandemic, and this was agreed.
Councillor Ginger said: “The very most this council can afford is to match what we did last year.”
Councillor Viv Parry said: “I agree. They are desperately going to need money but unfortunately we are desperately going to need money as well.”
The initial £1.8 million towards the refurbishment came from the European Regional Development Fund, Shropshire Council, Arts Council England, and the charity’s own fundraising efforts. It was hoped the Assembly Rooms would reopen fully in March 2019 but as the project progressed it became clear that far more work – and money – was needed than originally thought, and Shropshire Council agreed in December 2019 to contribute a further £1.3 million.
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