Convention centre renovation plans face revision as projected costs spiral

North Yorkshire Council says a multi-million pound investment in the Harrogate Convention Centre is set to be revised “to provide the best value for taxpayers”.

Councillors are due to discuss plans to renovate the convention centre, which first opened 42-years ago.

Members of the council executive are to meet on Tuesday next week (12 March) to discuss proposals not to pursue a contract for the first phase of plans to redevelop the town centre venue, and instead look at “more affordable options” to bring long-awaited improvements.

Executive director for finance, Cllr Gareth Dadd, who is the authority’s deputy leader, said: “The convention centre is a very important venue for both Harrogate itself and the county’s wider economy, and we are therefore committed to ensuring that it continues to play a key role in the future.

“However, all major projects are being affected by the high rates of inflation and the rising costs of materials and labour.

“We need to make sure we are providing the best value for money for residents and businesses across North Yorkshire, and we will carefully consider the options that are available for renovating the Harrogate Convention Centre.

“We need to decide how best to take the redevelopment plans forward while protecting the impact that would have on the public purse and the economy of the town.”

Members of the executive will be told that a two-phase development plan for the building was drawn up eight years ago, with the first stage due to revamp the existing building.

The second phase of the re-development outlined in the plan would see the existing exhibition halls replaced with a new event space, and the overarching project was expected to cost £47m at the time when the proposals were drawn up.

However, when a business case revealed that the first phase alone was estimated to cost £48m, the second stage of the development was deferred.

A bid for £20m in funding from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund proved unsuccessful, and rising costs have meant that the first phase of the re-development is now expected to be in the region of £57.2m.

In addition, there would be lost revenue when the building closed for the wide-ranging programme of work.

The convention centre’s director, Paula Lorimer, said: “We recognise there is a real need for investment in the building, but more affordable options should also be explored.

“Alternative plans that are being considered would prevent shutting large parts of the venue for significant periods of time to avoid the loss of valuable revenue.

“This building is integral to the visitor economy of Harrogate. Its conferences, exhibitions, corporate events, banquets and live entertainment provide jobs and business to the town’s shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and hotels – worth about £45m a year to the local economy.

“I do back the recommendation that is due to be discussed by the executive, as I have been a long-standing supporter of investment in the convention centre for a number of years and the venue must remain open during the works.”

She added this year’s income from lettings is at the highest level since 2014 and the number of forward bookings is also the highest in recent memory.

Lorimer said: “This demonstrates that the venue is doing well, and tactical investment is the way forward to keeping the venue operational.”

However, the building has problems with ageing heating and air conditioning systems and there are also increasing maintenance and utility costs, as well as a layout that presents challenges for many events and conferences.

Members of the executive will be told that the council’s finance team and the convention centre’s managers believe the suggested redevelopment scheme needs to be revised.

A report to the executive recommends councillors await the results of soft market testing before making a decision on the way forward, which is set to upgrade the facility in a more manageable way without closing it for long periods of time.

North Yorkshire Council currently supports the convention centre with a subsidy of £2.7m each year.

The centre opened in 1982 and has a 2,000-seat auditorium, along with 140,000 sq ft of exhibition space.

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