The Fairfield Halls may be in “hibernation” until next year because of coronavirus, but Croydon Council is now facing another crisis over its ill-fated £43million refurbishment project, with growing fears that the company appointed to manage the arts complex could hand back the keys and walk away at any point.
The council appointed Bournemouth-based swimming pool operators and conference organisers BH Live to run the arts programme at Fairfield Halls in early 2017.
Under the terms of the operating agreement, the council would no longer have to provide any day-to-day funding for running the venues, while BH Live would get to keep all receipts from ticket sales and bar and restaurant concessions.
When the deal was announced, BH Live had just over a year to wait before the curtain could go up at a refurbished, prestige venue, where the council was carrying out what was supposed to be a £30million modernisation.
But with rookie in-house developers Brick by Brick put in charge of refurbishment works, BH Live and the Croydon public were kept waiting until September 2019 before the five-times-postponed opening night could finally be staged, at a venue where building and refit works were still unfinished and some promised improvements were left incomplete.
Reluctantly, earlier this year, the council finally admitted that the over-running works had cost at least £43million. It is widely believed that that figure could rise yet further.
But as recently as February this year, Ollie “Butt Plug” Lewis, the council’s cabinet member for arts and shit, admitted under questioning at the Town Hall that BH Live had still not signed its operating lease for the Fairfield Halls. Looking on the bright side, Lewis suggested that BH Live were expected to sign the lease “imminently”.
The Fairfield Halls, of course, has been closed since March because of the covid-19 pandemic, with BH Live having to lay-off staff and mothball the venue, as was exclusively revealed by Inside Croydon.
Unless Lewis was deliberately misleading the scrutiny committee four months ago (and there’s no reason to believe that he made it up that BH Live had not yet signed the contract), then it seems very unlikely that BH Live will have signed on the dotted line during the coronavirus lockdown.
In the first three months after the Fairfield’s reopening, the operators were already known to have been hit with disappointing ticket sales.
Their artistic manager, Neil Chandler, who had been handed “the best job in Croydon” when appointed in those optimistic days of 2017, quit within six months of the reopening. BH Live has yet to name a replacement.
“To be honest, I can’t see why BH Live would want to stick with it, under the circumstances,” a senior Katharine Street source told Inside Croydon.
A newspaper interview given this month by Chris Symons, BH Live’s chief executive, was the first that most of the Halls’ staff had heard from the company’s Dorset-based management since the start of the lockdown, with the exception of the start of their redundancy consultations.
“Unlike many arts venues who receive Arts Council funding, Fairfield Halls relies completely on generating customer income to survive,” Symons said. “With no income generated at Fairfield Halls since the end of March and no immediate signs of recovery, like other venues up and down the country we have taken the tough decision to accept that normality in the theatre is not likely to return until the new year.
“Placing the building into hibernation will enable us to protect the venue and put plans in place for reopening in 2021.”
Sources at the Halls suggest that the decision to “hibernate” had not been communicated to producers and production companies who have been booked to perform at the Fairfield Halls for shows in the second-half of this year.
A five-year agreement with an instrument-manufacturer to provide the Halls with pianos, providing naming rights to the Concert Hall, was cancelled abruptly by BH Live with compensation paid to the supplier.
The Croydon pantomime, traditionally the Halls’ biggest annual money-spinner, has had to be canned, potentially at significant cost to the venue’s management.
But with bars, pubs and restaurants in most of England preparing to reopen this weekend after lockdown, sources close to the Halls remain unconvinced by BH Live’s position over “hibernation”. “The claim just doesn’t ring true,” they said.
“If there was the will there, there are ways in which the Halls could reopen in a reduced but socially distanced manner. We all know conferences and events will return in the autumn, and there is a takeaway café and room for live-steaming of concerts and other events, plus the possibility of generating income from allowing resident companies back into the building.
“So why mothball it and have to start all over again?”
There are questions over whether weekly safety tests of the Fairfield’s equipment have been conducted in the past three months, or the weekly legionella water testing that is required.
“If these tests are not being done, then the place will be in a real state come the re-reopening. If it’s not BH Live doing these tests, then surely the landlord, Croydon Council, has an obligation?”
There has also been a suggestion that, despite cash-strapped Croydon Council’s intention of no longer having to pay any money to the operators to support their revenue streams, the Town Hall has been forced to provide some form of compensation to BH Live because of the unsatisfactory and incomplete state of the Fairfield Halls after Brick by Brick’s botched refurbishment.
Croydon Council failed to respond to Inside Croydon’s questions regarding the operating lease and any payments made to BH Live as “liquidated damages”.
Our Katharine Street source said today, “I keep hearing rumours that BH Live’s management are seriously considering pulling out. The council won’t say whether the contract that we were told they were ‘due imminently’ to sign in March has ever been signed. It’s all very suspicious.”
Croydon has been chosen as London’s “Borough of Culture” in 2023, with a civic venue that has no pianos and has no dedicated gallery space…
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