BELLA BARTOCK, arts correspondent, reports on how a council-backed arts fest can’t fix a date in the diary
It’s just a few weeks since Croydon Council made the announcement that it would use £160,000 of Council Tax-payers’ money to stage a music and arts festival to promote the launch of a private business this September.
Yet there’s now a strong possibility that the 2016 Ambition Festival will be have to be delayed until mid-October.
Indeed, hold-ups in the opening date for Boxpark Croydon seem likely to see the Ambition Festival pushed back to after the official end of the secondment period for the council’s new “culture tzar”, part of whose job is to oversee the festival.
Boxpark, being built from disused shipping containers on the Ruskin Square site next to East Croydon Station, was supposed to “be open for summer 2016”.
It has only a temporary presence on the site, for five years, in which to make any return on investment – including from a £3million loan generously provided from Croydon Council funds.
But slow progress with construction means that the private company, headed by entrepreneur Roger Wade, has this week confirmed that it won’t be ready to open until September, losing the whole of the valuable summer trading period.
Even that opening date could yet prove to be an optimistic estimate. A senior source familiar with construction activity on the site this week told Inside Croydon that Boxpark will “open in September only by the skin of their teeth”.
It was in March 2015 when Boxpark announced its intention to open a hipster collection of boutique stores, including “… offering a click and collect service” for the fashion outlets which Croydon was promised it would feature.
By July last year, the company had a change of plan and Boxpark Croydon was to be Boozepark, with its outlets offering food and drink only – to the complete surprise of Croydon Council official Jo Negrini, whose department had championed the £3million loan.
Even as recently as March this year, in a press release announcing that Croydon Council was to provide yet more public money to stage a festival to promote the new venture, the fantasy that Boxpark would open “this summer” was still being peddled.
“At the heart of the development is a major 20,000 sq ft state-of-the-art event space, which will be programmed with innovative and vibrant events and exhibitions throughout the year. The festival will be the centrepiece of that programme,” the council’s propaganda department gushed just eight weeks ago when announcing the 2016 Ambition Festival.
“The programme in the Boxpark Croydon event space will sit alongside two more town centre sites expected to be included in the two-day festival in September.” The first Ambition Festival, in 2015, was staged over four days in July.
The council had earmarked £800,000 over five years for the hire of units within Boxpark, but in a written answer to Town Hall question time in February, Timothy Godfrey, the cabinet member for culture, said that that budget – which works out at £160,000 per year – would now be used to pay Boxpark for them to stage attractions on their own premises.
It is understood that this lucrative arrangement to act as the council’s festival producers was never put out for competitive tender for other music and arts promoters to bid for the work.
“The 2016 Ambition Festival will be held at Boxpark Croydon and at least two other town centre venues, and Boxpark is in the process of being appointed to produce the festival across all locations,” Godfrey wrote.
“They have a strong track record of events at their existing site, and their new location in Croydon has been designed specifically to facilitate the hosting of various forms of entertainment and events.”
But this week, Boxpark admitted that it is having problems just producing its own venue, and that it would not be opening until September – though even now, no actual opening date has been confirmed.
And a Town Hall source has indicated that, therefore, senior figures at the council are considering putting back the date for the public-funded Ambition Festival until October, probably coinciding with the school half-term holiday.
“It’s seen as supporting the council’s £3million investment,” the source said, trying hard not to sound too cynical, and failing.
The uncertainty over Boxpark’s opening and therefore the timing of the Ambition Festival has already caused problems for the event: “Last year’s Ambition Festival featured Soul II Soul. But how can you book any headline acts of similar stature if you don’t know at this stage on what dates your event is going to take place?” a council source said. “It makes any marketing and ticketing impossible, too.
“And it makes you wonder quite what Boxpark are going to do with the 160 grand from the council. What acts, if any, are they going to book with that money?”
Any delay in the scheduling of the Ambition Festival could mean that Paula Murray, who started work in Croydon on April 1 on a six-month secondment from Brighton as the council’s £78,000 per year creative director, may have already cleared her desk and left Fisher’s Folly before one of the major events she is supposed to oversee has even taken place.
Inside Croydon understands that the HR department in the council’s offices is already working on advertising for a culture director on a permanent basis, with Murray likely to be in pole position to take the role, especially since her deputy CEO role at Brighton and Hove city council is currently under review.
“Delivering top-notch culture is what Paula brings to the table, and getting someone with her strong track record is a real coup for Croydon,” Tony Newman, the council leader, crowed at the time of Murray’s appointment.
“Culture will be at the heart of Croydon’s regeneration, so I couldn’t be happier,” Newman added, failing to identify that “the heart of Croydon’s regeneration” appears to be beating very slowly, with Boxpark at least four months late and the £1.4 billion Hammersfield supermall development unlikely to open until four years later than its original 2017 schedule.
At least, after allocating £3.8 million of public money towards the scheme at a time of unprecedented cuts in local authority spending, Newman and his council clique will have guaranteed themselves gilt-edged personal invites to the Boozepark opening ceremony. Trebles all round!
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