The findings of a study into the possibility of developing an arts, culture and heritage centre in Morpeth suggests that such a project is feasible.
Although it accepts there are challenges and risks with an initiative of this scale, the options appraisal says the on-going accommodation review by Northumberland County Council presents an opportunity to construct such a facility.
One site that has already been identified as having ‘significant potential’ for the new building is the leisure centre in Newmarket, if plans to develop a new leisure centre elsewhere come to fruition.
However, the specialist consultant also recommends that the artefacts being stored by the Morpeth Antiquarian Society in Newbiggin should stay in their current location.
The project, which has been branded HeArt of Morpeth, is being facilitated by the Greater Morpeth Development Trust and a steering group was formed in February 2015.
In May, this group – thanks to funding from Morpeth Town Council, the Friends of Morpeth Museum and Queen’s Hall Arts in Hexham – commissioned Karen Taws to undertake a feasibility study.
This involved extensive desk research, a review of potential audience demand including an online survey, detailed discussions with a range of people with an interest in and experience of arts and culture and policy and development issues and a review of 15 similar arts centres in market towns across the UK.
A total of 291 people responded to the online survey, with a further eight giving their views in hard-copy format, and 95.3 per cent of these people said they and/or their family would either definitely or probably use a cultural centre in Morpeth.
The report says: ‘Discussions with county council staff do demonstrate that this is an opportune time to start discussions regarding a potential location.
‘Plans are still being discussed regarding the potential re-location of County Hall from its current site on the edge of Morpeth to a new location in Ashington.
‘This means the current County Hall site may be re-developed, including re-locating some of the services currently being provided from sites in Morpeth town centre.
‘It is important not to underestimate how long delivering this project will take, but if there is agreement on taking the project forward, it will be important to immediately put in place actions to make it happen.
‘Based on the review of arts centres in towns similar to Morpeth, it is proposed that the venue facilities should include a main theatre with a seating capacity of between 200 and 300, a studio theatre, a gallery and exhibitions space, a café/bistro/bar and offices and meeting rooms available to rent.
‘The Antiquarian Society’s collection is currently housed in a facility in Newbiggin, which provides it with 70sq m of storage. It would be very difficult for a cultural centre to provide this scale of space.
‘The society is being provided with this space at a charge of £1.2k per annum – to ensure the provision of essential financial return, it is likely that a cultural centre would have to annually charge between £9k and £10k for this amount of space.’
The report was welcomed by Morpeth town councillors at a recent meeting. They will discuss it in more detail at a later date.
Coun Nic Best said: “This is a very useful report as it brings the various issues together.”