Friday, May 25, 2012

BCC's proposed £20m conferencing investment in the Waterfront, knocking down the Studio in the process

When Belfast City Council’s Investment Programme was launched earlier this year, it included a reference to expending the conference/exhibition space at the Belfast Waterfront.

Along with colleagues, I idly wondered where the additional space would be found. Would they build a glass covered bridge across to the unfinished building sitting in front of the Waterfront? Could the ugly carbuncle (Lanyon Quay Building) between the Waterfront and the new Laganside Courts building be used?

It turns out that the option being recommended to the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee is to knock down the Waterfront Studio and build the conferencing centre in its footprint and over the yard in behind.

The Waterfront Hall – now known as the Belfast Waterfront – was built at a total cost of £37 million and opened in 1997. The Arts Theatre had long been closed, and the Waterfront Studio theatre provided a council-owned space that drama groups could use at reasonable rates, as well as providing a small city-centre theatre venue for newly launched plays. These were the days before the Baby Grand, the rebuilt Lyric and the Belfast MAC.

The Group Theatre on Bedford Street (attached to the Ulster Hall) didn’t survive the Grand Dame’s renovations, and although community theatre groups were at the time reassured that the access policy for the Waterfront Studio would fill that space, the days of Belfast Council running a theatre space suitable for community groups may be numbered.
A total of 63 opportunities have been lost in the City [Belfast] and by the Waterfront directly over the period 2008-2011 with the key reason given the lack of appropriate integrated conferencing facilities.
While a 2011 business case recommended linking the Waterfront with the empty level 0 and 1 floors in the Lanyon Quay Building, a more fulsome Economic Appraisal evaluated a long list of ten options came back with a more ambitious plan.
Two Story [sic] Extension of the Waterfront over the Service Yard to the rear of the Venue, with further extension over River.
It involves demolishing the existing Studio area, and has the potential to create units to let (or storage space) on the ground floor level in front of the existing Studio.
  • Integrated convention centre with clear span exhibition space across one level with minimum of 2,000 sq/m;
  • minimum of 5 breakout rooms that can each accommodate 200 plus people;
  • banqueting space that can accommodate up to 750 people.
This requires a capital investment of £20 million (a suspiciously round number). It would also benefit from speedy decisions as the Council and Northern Ireland Tourist Board reckon they could tap into £12 million or so of money from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). But the ERDF closes at the end of 2015, and all funding would need to be drawn down by that date (ie, the building work would need to be completed).

Accessing the ERDF also throws up an issue of staffing.
To satisfy the requirements of the DETI and DFP Economists it was necessary to include within the Council’s Economic Appraisal an assessment of the various options for the management and operation of the new facilities. In order to address this two options have been considered:-

a) The Council manages the facility itself

b) A Management Contract is entered into with an established Conference Operator
The assessment concluded that the there was an enormous benefit to having an operator that was “established in the market place with a reputation for delivery” over continuing as a Council-managed facility. Whereas a council-run extended convention facility could see a projected economic benefit of £21m per annum, outsourcing to an external operator would see the projected economic benefit nearly double to £39m per annum.

(The ‘economic benefit’ is the additional money spent in Belfast as a result of conferences being held, including accommodation, food, banners, hiring goods, using local companies and staff as taking into account the ‘Bleisure’ tourism market of increasing the number of business visitors who return on holiday.)

If a professional operator could hope to achieve this level of extra (or better) business, would these figures not suggest that the council – up to now – hasn’t developed a reputation for being good at managing its conferencing venue.

The aim would be to see a six fold increase in the number of National Large Association conferences held in Belfast (from one a year in 2010 to six a year in 2020) and a twelve-fold jump in the number of International/European Association conference held (from one every two years now to six per annum by 2020).

There’s a gotcha in the report to the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee. The report’s figures do not take into account (or even estimate the size) of “any compensatory payment which may be required by the Hilton [Hotel] as part of the extension agreement” nor “any additional costs which may be incurred through the transfer [TUPE] of relevant staff to an external operator”.

The report reckons that extending the conference facilities and running it in-house would net cost the council £215k each year. Whereas outsourcing the operation to an existing supplier would offer a net saving of £911k, equivalent to “a 0.72% reduction in the district rate (2012/13)”.

There’s a second gotcha in the report.
If the new facility is to achieve the projected income set out in the Economic Appraisal the business model for the Waterfront will have to fundamentally change from that of an entertainment venue to that of a conference centre.
Guess which bit of the Waterfront’s business has been increasing over the last few years? Entertainments. Despite the neighbouring Odyssey area, the Waterfront’s main auditorium and smaller Studio have been busy.

And guess which part of the Waterfront’s business has nose-dived over recent years? Conferencing.

With the removal of the Waterfront Studio – the last of the council’s theatre spaces – it is unlikely that community theatre could afford the prices charged to hire the small venues in the Lyric Theatre or Belfast MAC. Both venues received public funding, but are run on a commercial basis. Instead, community-based groups would have to look to Newtownabbey or Lisburn council theatres, well outside their catchment areas.

Running for the guts of two months each year, and attended by bus loads of school children, the Waterfront Studio pantomime would cease to have a venue. [Oh no it wouldn’t? Oh yes it would!]

The question for Belfast City Council is whether they want to demolish part of a building they may still be paying off the mortgage on to remove the community-accessible Waterfront Studio and replace it with a convention centre that may or may not attract more briefcases business to Belfast?

And the question of whether they want to “fundamentally change” the business model of the Waterfront from an entertainment venue to a conference centre? (None of the reports seem to articulate the loss to the local economy of the Waterfront auditorium being less available for concerts and more tied up with conferences.)

Cross-posted from Slugger O'Toole.

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