Gallery: Spa faces last chance saloon
15:03 06 January 2014
A seaside theatre which provided entertainment for a century is just one step away from its doors never re-opening – and almost certain demolition.
Suzie hasn’t given up on the Spa
This Christmas marks the first time in 46 years there hasn’t been a Dennis Lowe Theatre Company pantomime in Felixstowe.
“It’s the worst Christmas ever,” said his daughter Suzie.
“It sounds quite dramatic but for me, if I’ve not been at home doing the panto myself or being involved in it in some way I’ve been off doing a show somewhere else.
“My mum was saying the other day ‘I miss getting all the costumes ready, getting the bits and bobs out’.”
Suzie, 29, was just one when she first appeared in her late dad’s pantomime.
She said: “I had a pair of ballet shows made for me out of leather and gaffer tape because you couldn’t buy ballet shows that small; I could just walk. I’ve still got them at home.
“That’s the worst of it, the memories, especially for me.
“The majority of my memories of my dad are in that building and now it’s closed off.
“I know things happen, buildings get knocked down and rebuilt but at the same time it’s sitting there doing nothing, nobody’s saying ‘we’re going to do this with the building or that’. To me it feels like a waste.
“We were the last show in then they (Suffolk Coastal District Council) locked the doors behind us. It’s absolutely devastating, you see the theatre boarded up and think ‘why?’”
Suzie said it was a shame nobody seemed prepared to listen to ideas about what could be done with the empty venue.
She said: “There are people interested and so much money to be made out of the theatre. (Maybe the council) isn’t sure what it wants done with it or the bids aren’t viable, I don’t know.
“Maybe it’s busy with a, b or c and doesn’t have the time; maybe the Spa isn’t the most important thing on its agenda any more.”
When home she’s constantly being stopped in the street by strangers asking where she’s staging the show this year, what’s going on with the Spa and why she isn’t carrying on her dad’s tradition?
“It’s so sad; if we took our panto somewhere else I don’t feel like it would be the same. Obviously it was my dad’s tradition and I wanted to keep it as that.
“I looked at the Suffolk Showground and maybe doing the show in a circus tent ... it just didn’t seem right. We thought, let’s have the year off and keep fighting for the Spa to reopen.”
She has her fingers crossed the New Year will bring new hope.
“I’ve not given up on the Spa,” she said.
Councillors closed Felixstowe’s Spa Pavilion a year ago after the annual panto completed its run, deciding the £250,000-a-year cost was not good value for money for taxpayers.
Since then the 892-seater seafront venue has been boarded up, with no firm offers or acceptable projects to reverse the sad situation.
Now councillors at Suffolk Coastal are set to give it “one last chance” – with a new effort to entice a buyer before they decide what to do next.
That could mean demolition, with the site cleared and converted into part of the seafront gardens – which could cost £300,000 – or the land then used for some other project, hopefully a tourist attraction but with the fear of offices or homes always lurking in the background.
Councillors are being recommended to market the Spa by way of a closed bid or private treaty.
This would mean interested parties would put in a sealed bid for the building by May for the council to consider.
So far there has been little interest, despite two marketing campaigns by expert agents Jones Lang LaSalle to generate a sale or a lease arrangement.
Suffolk Coastal cabinet member Geoff Holdcroft said the closed bid scheme “would allow one final marketing opportunity and provides the two current interested parties an opportunity to provide a final submission”.
He said the marketing initiative had been a “robust process”, with efforts renewed in the summer with new brochures to show the potential of the Spa building and its site.
Mr Holdcroft said: “However, to date, the process has failed to identify a preferred bid, although there are currently two interested parties.
“It must be stressed that the interest from both parties is still in embryonic form and that both parties have requested that both their identities and the nature of their interest is kept ‘strictly confidential’ until such time they can prepare full plans and give evidence of adequate funding.”
On January 7, cabinet will look at a series of options – ranging from carrying on the current marketing to changing the agents, from demolition to putting the venue to auction.
So far the marketing campaign has cost £11,000, and looking after the empty building, including a part-time caretaker, anti-vandal measures, occasional heating, has cost £10,000, and is expected to cost £3,500 a month in future, excluding repair and maintenance costs.
The council’s insurers Zurich Municipal though feel extra measures will be needed if it continues to stand empty – including closure of the beachside public toilets and added security measures.
The estimated cost of the list of suggested measures would be around £20,000 a month – the same amount as it cost to actually run the theatre.
Audiences at the Spa Pavilion had been falling for the three years before it closed and the stats tell the story of its failings.
For professional shows the average audience, according to consultants Bonnar Keenlyside, who made an indepth study of the venue, was less than 300 – fewer than one-third of the seats sold.
Of those show-goers, surprisingly few were from Felixstowe – around 27 per cent. More than 40pc came from Ipswich, the rest from a wide range of places around the county and further afield.
Around 35,000 tickets were sold a year, not enough to warrant an 892-seat venue.
In fact, a 500-seat theatre would need to attract 55,000 people annually to be viable even with £400,000 of public funding, compared with the Spa’s £250,000 from the council coffers.
In comparison, the Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, also with 900 seats and £180,000 subsidy, attracts 120,000 show-goers annually even with the West End not far away.
Not enough shows were staged though at the Spa – 120 a year compared with 300 in other similar venues – and more than 40 were cancelled in its last four years, giving a bad impression.
Bonnar Keenlyside suggested a series of options, ranging from reducing it to 500 seats at a cost of £5m, or building a new theatre, £7m to £15m.
The company said: “Taking the overall findings into account there is no obvious solution that will guarantee success. Each option carries some financial and operational risk.”