Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion faces potential closure

Theatre goers on the Suffolk coast are facing up to the chance that their local seaside theatre may be closing next year.

Suffolk Coastal District Council, owners of the Spa Pavilion in Felixstowe, are asking for companies for proposals for the 892 seat venue after the council agreed it can no longer afford to fund the theatre. Consultants brought in to look at the future of the venue have revealed that the council is subsidising each ticket sold at the venue by £7 after audience attendance dropped dramatically at the theatre.

Currently the venue is managed on the council’s behalf by Openwide International but with falling attendance and an estimated £3million pounds of work needed on the building in the next few years the council feels it can no longer subsidise the venue.

“We really cannot afford to make that type of investment, and so we have had little choice but to inform Openwide Coastal that we intend to exercise our option to give notice to end our contract with them. They and any other leisure or entertainment company can come forward with new proposals on what to do with the Spa in the future” explains Cllr Geoff Holdcroft, Cabinet Member for Economic Development and Leisure at Suffolk Coastal Council.

“We are already spending in the region of £250,000 a year for the existing private theatre company to operate the venue on our behalf. At a time when we are having to bridge a £2.8 million budget gap, this spending along with all our other services has had to be put under the microscope to decide if it really is good value for money and still a priority during these tough times.”

The seaside venue opened in 1909, with the present building dating from the 1930s and the current layout follows rebuilding after suffering bomb damage in the Second World War. In recent years the venue has been operated by Apollo Leisure and Clear Channel Entertainment before current managers Openwide took over the management in 2006 for what was intended to be a ten year contract. Recently the theatre has been forced to cancel a number of performances due to falling sales.

For Openwide the news is a stark reminder of the pressures on local government funding, as Rory Holburn of Openwide recognises;

“This is disappointing news but we recognise the financial pressures facing the Council, and it has become increasingly clear that the Spa does need a significant and urgent investment to help make it an attractive venue for customers and indeed performers.”

The decision to withdraw funding still needs to be ratified by the council but if approved the intention is to withdraw funding for the theatre at the end of June. In the meantime the venue remains open and its programme of events will continue to run as scheduled until then. Both the Council and Openwide will be working with local groups who regularly use the venue to update them.

The Council are looking to the possibility that an outside organisation will come forward to secure the venue’s future

“We will investigate whether a theatre trust like that which has taken over the running of Lowestoft’s Marina Theatre is a way forward. However, we have no choice other than to open up the prospect of running the Spa in the future to the market, to find out what leisure or entertainment proposals and potential investment outside companies and organisations may come up with. We hope to begin the process in January so we can make a firm decision on the Spa’s future by June,” added Cllr Holdcroft.

Alongside a programme of touring shows, the venue is the home theatre of several local amateur companies including Stage Door Theatre Company and Felixstowe Musical Theatre who have just finished a week’s run of The Sound Of Music at the venue. The Spa Pavilion also stages the Felixstowe Drama Festival as well as its popular Summer Youth Project that sees over 200 young people rehearse and perform a show in just two weeks.

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