“This could be a real transformation for Burgess Hill, it is a catalyst for transforming our town – it is not just a venue.”
These are the words of residents who voted in favour of a plan for a community and performance venue to be built in the town.
The plan for the fit-for-purpose venue for the town’s needs in the 21st century is part of Burgess Hill’s Cultural Quarter which is to replace Martlets Hall – a £65million redevelopment of the town centre.
Burgess Hill Town Council invited the public to have their say about the plan at an Open Forum last Thursday, held in St John’s Church.
Five hundred residents turned out to the three sessions and all but eight people voted in favour of the proposal.
Councillor Andrew Barrett-Miles told guests there was a ‘demand’ for the venue, which will now cost up to £9million – a significant jump from £5million which was originally proposed.
He said: “This is our vision for the next 20 years – it is tremendous. This is something for Burgess Hill to be proud of for the next 50 years and I would like to thank the steering group for getting it this far.
“I have lived in Burgess Hill for 30 years and I really want this. I am very passionate about it.”
An action group of community representatives and town council members have been developing the Cultural Quarter, which is outlined in the town’s Neighbourhood Plan.
The group enlisted help from Colliers International, who have an impressive list of achievements in the field.
The former Royal British Legion (RBL) building and the adjacent Cyprus Hall in Cyprus Road were identified as the ‘perfect site’ for the venue.
The RBL building would need to be demolished to facilitate the new centre and the front of Cyprus Hall would be recreated. Cyprus Hall would need to close for six months in order for the works to take place.
A theatre for up to 300 seats is proposed, along with flexible space for meetings, a dining area and space for art exhibitions. The venue could also be used for weddings.
The venue would join with Cyprus Hall. People walking would be able to go through the front and drivers who use the car park would be able to enter through the back.
The group will be seeking planning permission at the end of next year and if granted, construction could begin in 2019 and the venue could be built by 2021.
David Geddes, principal associate for Colliers International, said he and his team saw ‘potential’ from the very start. “It is fantastic to see so many people here today,” he said.
“It has been a very interesting job for us and it is nice to work on something that we can really visualise at the end. I couldn’t have come up with a site better than this one.
“It would be a fantastic wedding venue and for theatre groups. There would need to be a small group of staff to manage it and a considerable amount of volunteers.”
Architect Julian Middleton added: “It is at a very early stage at the moment. It is important for us that the space is flexible and can be used for a variety of performances.”
Councillor Barrett-Miles said the cost to build the venue was ‘expected’ and said the council would need to apply for a loan through The Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) and that it all depended on fundraising.
He told guests that in order to pay back the loan the town council would need to increase residents’ council tax for two years. “The preset would go up by just under £12 which is roughly a £1 a month,” he said.
“We wouldn’t do that in one go, we would do that over two years. We want to get this in as soon as possible and want to get it going as soon as Martlets Hall is gone.
“If we don’t get the loan or support from the community this project will not be able to go ahead.”
However councillor Barrett-Miles said if the loan is given to them this would still leave a gap.
“If we get the loan this still leaves a gap so there will have to be a strong fundraising effort from everyone. This is our project, we will run it and we will pay for it.”
Councillor Barrett-Miles also said funds would come from developers’ contributions and the town council.
“There will be a significant amount coming in from these developments but it will be used over 20 years,” he said.
Residents shared their excitement for the proposal. “I am very excited about this, it looks fantastic, but I think we should be more ambitious,” said one resident.
“Let’s pay more than £12 and make it happen. This could be a real transformation for Burgess Hill, it is a catalyst for transforming our town – it is not just a venue.”
Some residents argued that the venue was not big enough. “Make it big and make it good otherwise don’t do it at all,” said one resident.
Residents also criticised funding and asked why Mid Sussex District Council was not contributing. “This project is not just for Burgess Hill, it is for the whole of Mid Sussex, so the fundraising should come from MSDC too, not just from BHTC,” said a resident.
Cathy Barnett, who has lived in the town for 60 years, argued that the venue should be theirs only. “Let this be our venue that we run – and I think this will make people want to get involved,” she said.
“I think it is going to be a fantastic venue, we have just got to be patient. As a starter it is the right size, if we go too big it could be too much to run and it becomes a white elephant. If it proves we need something bigger we can approach this then.”
Other residents who use Cyprus Hall were concerned about where they will go when the works take place. Councillor Barrett-Miles ensured them that other venues would be arranged for them and that there should be no impact on them.
Life-long resident of 46 years Lance Milton, who works for Act Too Arts Academy, criticised the group for not informing everyone properly about the project.
Alex Ward, 21, who has just graduated in theatre production, praised the venue. “If we offered a really up-to-date venue we would get people wanting to hire it.”
Guests were asked to fill in a questionnaire and to return it to the Help Point, where a model can be seen on display.