Friday 14 March 2014, just after 5pm, is a time when many people in Derby can remember where they were and what they were doing.
City workers were leaving work for the weekend when fire alarm bells rang out at the Assembly Rooms. Fire broke out in the building’s electrical room located on the roof of the car park.
As the building quickly became ablaze, the colours of blue and red lights from emergency vehicles appeared as a major operation started to control the flames which leapt into the night sky.
When the flames subsided the Council’s leadership unequivocally promised that like the Phoenix, a new Assembly Rooms would rise from the ashes.
Many have asked why it has taken so long to re-open and why has the Council been cautious about its plans to reopen?
“Large scale construction projects never happen instantly,” said deputy leader, Martin Rawson, who has responsibility for regeneration. “This has been a journey and we have never stopped working to find the most cost effective solution in the shortest time possible and we didn’t want to go public until we were sure plans were viable.”
“The reality is that if money was not a problem, a brand new state-of-the-art Music and Performance Venue would have replaced the aging Assembly Rooms whose ‘sell-by date’ is fast approaching. But we have been facing austerity measures from government in Westminster and money is in short supply. We must therefore be diligent in the management of scarce public funds,” he added.
Immediately after the fire, the first order of business was to assess the cost of damage for an insurance claim which took about 18-months to be settled.
The first tranche of the insurance money, in the amount of £300,000, was received on 14 April 2014 and the remaining £4.75m was received on 16 August 2015.
With the money in hand, the question was should the Assembly Rooms be repaired or given its age, should it be knocked down and rebuilt into a venue more suitable to take Derby into the mid-21st century?
Estimates put the cost for re-opening at between £7.4 and £13m and that would still require an ongoing annual subsidy and maintenance cost of about £750,000.
At the same time estimates put the cost of reconstruction at about £25m for a purpose-built venue that could accommodate more shows and people than the current building. It was also thought that a new business model could be used to ensure that a future operation could generate a surplus rather than require a subsidy.
In late 2015, the challenge was handed to the Regeneration Projects Division of the Council which is staffed by a multi-disciplinary team of specialist project managers.
They engaged property advisors, Cushman & Wakefield, to carry out feasibility studies into potential options. The brief was to come up with an option that required no ongoing public subsidy, that would generate a surplus income, be able to attract national and international acts, seat a larger audience and stimulate the night time economy of the city centre.
Nearing mid-2016, Cushman & Wakefield completed the Phase 1 feasibility studies which showed that that there was a demand for a Music and Performance Venue which would enhance what was currently being offered in Derby and complement what was being offered in Nottingham. It also showed that the preferred location was the Assembly Rooms site, within the heart of The Market Place that would significantly enhance the offer in this area.
The study also stated that there was no completely privately funded solution. All feasible options required significant initial capital funding from the public sector. The most feasible way forward was for the Council to build the facility and lease it to an operator.
Creating a Game Changer
The consultants were then commissioned to carry out Phase 2 feasibility work which required more detailed financial and economic appraisal and soft market testing.
“Within months, an ambitious and exciting picture began to emerge,” said Greg Jennings, acting Director with responsibility for regeneration.
“There were two clear options that were deliverable on the site – one was a Music and Performance Venue that would accommodate about 3,000 while the other was a hybrid option that could accommodate about 2,800 for music and performances and then convert to a full theatre with a capacity of about 1,600,” he added.
The consultants also looked at reinstating the Assembly Rooms as a third option but this revealed that it could not compete with a new build, it did not have scalable or flexible spaces, it could not accommodate large enough audiences to attract major performers and it would require an ongoing subsidy.
In other words, refurbishment was uneconomical, financially unsustainable and unattractive to entertainment operators as a concert venue.
During Phase 2, the consultants proposed an innovative additional option that could transform the Market Place and bridge the music and entertainment gap until a new Music and Performance Venue could be constructed.
It was The Portal – a huge retractable canopy that would cover the entire Market Place, capable of hosting large performances for a capacity of 5,000 spectators. It would also come with built-in sound, lighting, electricity, stage and storage area for seating and other equipment.
It was a one-stop solution that would mean faster and more cost-effective setups. No longer would promoters need to truck in all their equipment and seating. Everything would already be on site.
If installed, Derby would become the first city to bring this technology to the UK.
The Regeneration Projects Division asked Cushman and Wakefield to do a technical and financial due diligence before the Council makes a public announcement.
“The concept of a Portal and meanwhile use was energising and exciting to the entire team. We hoped this would become Phase 1 of the new Music and Performance Venue but sadly the result, received in late November 2016, was that this option would cost almost as much as the construction of a new Music and Performance Venue.
“The cost was estimated at nearly £20m. I could not recommend this option to Cabinet as it was not prudent use of public funds,” said Cllr Rawson.
The Regeneration Projects Division is currently scrutinising the reports with the proverbial fine-tooth comb before making a recommendation to Cabinet.
Alongside the development of a new Music and Performance Venue, the Council would seek to increase the Assembly Rooms Car Park to almost double its size which is expected to pay for itself through parking fees.
If accepted, a new Music and Performance Venue could be opened in summer 2021.
Published: 14 March 2017