Councillor calls on public to be enthusiastic over ‘exciting’ town centre arts centre

Falkirk’s Council leader has called on residents to be enthusiastic about ‘exciting’ plans for a proposed community building which she believes can breathe new life into the town centre.

By Kirsty Paterson, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Thursday, 29th July 2021, 9:05 am

The council is urging people to take part in a consultation to gauge support for the development of a new building in the High Street which would be home to a theatre, studio spaces, a library, cafe/bar, advice hub and some council offices.

And Cecil Meiklejohn said she hoped people would show some enthusiasm for the project, which she firmly believes will help to regenerate the whole town centre.

She said: “One of the aims of the consultation is to spark people’s interest and get them involved so we can create a sense of hope and expectation for the future.

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Cecil Meiklejohn, Leader of Falkirk Council. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

“We want people to be part of this and help shape it.”

Lesley O’Hare, culture and libraries manager, admits they are “trying not to call it an arts centre as that is a bit old-fashioned”.

“More than anything else it will be a ‘gathering space’,” she said.

“You can come and have a coffee, you can meet friends, you can browse the books, you can drop your child off for a pre-school dance class, you can come along to a writing workshop.”

Culture and Libraries manager, Lesley O'Hare (Pic: Michael Gillen)

The first groups to be consulted are existing customers of Falkirk Town Hall (FTH) and the library and the many local groups who use the venue.

Within 24 hours of the consultation opening, they had received 380 responses - and they hope for many more before it closes on August 20.

After that they will continue to work with focus group on all aspects from accessibility to the sort of events they want to see.

And they insisted the new venue won’t simply be a “replacement town hall”.

Councillor Lynn Munro from Bo'ness.

Over the years, FTH has been unable to accommodate many touring theatres shows as its shallow stage means the sets simply don’t fit.

There’s also a large gap between the stage and the front row that means the performers who do make it find it a struggle to connect with the audience.

As well as the 550-seat theatre, there will also be spaces that can be used for everything from council meetings to cabaret to acoustic music nights to comedy as well as practical workshops.

Those spaces will also be where the library can hold events.

The most recent meeting of Falkirk Council agreed that the site for the new centre will be on the east end of Falkirk High Street.

Opposition councillors have raised concerns about the project however, including the potential cost and the value it will bring to the community.

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Conservative councillor Lynn Munro says there are still many questions that need answered about the impact of rising costs on building materials; the lack of people who will be using the offices and even going to theatres after the pandemic; and the length of time that a compulsory purchase order will take.

Mrs Munro said: “In the present plans, we will have just over a 100 office staff, and if the theatre runs at 70 per cent capacity all the time an extra 400 people in the evenings in the theatre.

“A recent poll by YouGov for the Times says that the majority of adults will avoid parties, nightclubs and theatres and this situation is likely to continue for some years. So why are we so focused on a theatre?”

Members of the Labour group, meanwhile, say the site is too small to include any council offices.

Councillor Meiklejohn admits that the number of people working in the offices will be small, but says people will be working more flexibly, which will mean different people coming in throughout the week.

“There will be challenges – there’s no doubt about that – but it’s also really exciting,” she said.

Ms O’Hare says national surveys show 75 per cent of theatre audiences are keen to return – but work will need done to look at customer confidence.

“I would say that there couldn’t be a worse time, but there couldn’t be a better time either,” she said.

“We see this as being a sign of optimism for the community and for town centre businesses.

“We need to grab this with both hands because a new facility for the area will hopefully give hope to people as we emerge from eighteen months where there hasn’t been a lot to look forward to.”

They both make the comparison between this project and the Kelpies, which involved slowly building support and involvement within the community.

“That site now generates huge civic pride and this facility is the next stage on Falkirk’s journey,” said Ms O’Hare.

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