It takes a brave council to invest more than £30m in an arts project when local government budgets are being cut to the bone, but Cheshire West and Chester Council’s redevelopment of the city’s 1930s Art Deco Odeon cinema into a cultural centre is already paying dividends.
The two-and-a-half-year construction project opened to the public in May and Graham Lister, the council’s project manager for the building, says those involved have been “staggered” by the daily footfall of between 5,000 and 6,000 people. So how have they managed to create such a scene-stealer?
Storyhouse has brought a theatre and cinema back to Chester after a decade-long absence, creating a cultural centre that the council hopes will act as a catalyst for wider regeneration.
“For a long while now, Chester has punched below its weight as a retail and leisure destination,” concedes Dan Mitchell, partner in the Manchester office of national planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore. “Increased competition at Liverpool One and the continued growth at Cheshire Oaks has had an impact on the catchment of Chester city centre.”
Mitchell says Chester has always been an attractive place to visit but lacked the larger unit sizes that national retailers require and therefore struggled to attract tenants to its historic Rows. The Storyhouse project, however, shows the city is “fighting back”, he says.
The £32.5m invested in the centre by the council - representing the vast majority of the total funding - could have proven a hard sell to local residents, businesses and councillors. However, an economic impact study identified nearly £16.5m of annual benefits, which helped it achieve cross-party political support.
Storyhouse incorporates the grade II-listed shell of the former 1936 Odeon cinema and a new brick and translucent glass extension. A library, restaurant and boutique cinema are housed in the cinema’s original Art Deco interior, while the extension incorporates an 800-seat main auditorium, a 150-seat flexible studio, a bar and shared backstage facilities.
The venue’s 20 public spaces will play host to productions from Storyhouse’s newly formed repertory company. In addition, there will be programmes of opera, comedy, music, drama, dance, digital art commissions and daily film screenings. The building will also be a centre for community engagement and learning, including a youth engagement programme, a creative library programme and formal education initiatives.
Simon Erridge, a director at Bennetts Associates and the lead architect on Storyhouse, says those involved in its development have been overwhelmed by the excitement generated by the project. “There has been grassroots culture in Chester over the past 10 years but it’s had no major building to inhabit so there’s an outpouring of people who want to be in this building, to go and see shows,” he says. “It’s been a courageous thing to do. You can’t regenerate a city without investment in culture.”
The hope is that Storyhouse will spark a major redevelopment of the city centre’s retail and leisure offer, the next phase of which is the £300m Chester Northgate scheme, which is set to deliver around 500,000 sq ft of new retail, restaurant and leisure facilities over two phases.
Lister says the huge level of interest in Storyhouse has given prospective tenants the confidence to commit to the Northgate scheme, which is due for completion in 2021. Both House of Fraser and a four-star Crowne Plaza hotel have recently been announced as anchors of the development, with other retailers and catering operators expected to follow soon.
He also believes Storyhouse will have a positive effect on the local property market as Chester becomes a more desirable city for people to visit and live in.
If it is the success everyone hopes it will be, Storyhouse will surely inspire other councils to follow suit, which would make it just the first act in an even bigger regeneration story.
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