Sale of the Winter Gardens in Margate is no longer an option with the preference now being an operator on a long lease, says council leader Rick Everitt.
Speaking while at the site’s main hall, Cllr Everitt said marketing by consultants Collier will aim to find a ‘best value’ proposal with a priority on the leisure uses rather than just the highest bid.
In March the council, then run by a Conservative administration, agreed that all options for either lease arrangements, operator agreement or sale for Margate Winter Gardens would be kept open
At that time there was a plea from Cllr Helen Whitehead that a full repairing lease agreement would be given priority over sale of the Grade II listed building.
A long lease option has now been given preference. Cllr Everitt said: “Sale is not on the table. We are looking at a long lease that allows us to protect the building to be used for what the community wants.
“There is no possibility of housing on this site, we are not going down that road.”
However, the council leader acknowledges that whoever takes on the building will need to spend millions to make it fit for a modern audience while still retaining cultural and heritage aspects.
He said: “The costs (are estimated) at £6million but in the real world, over a period of time and with inflation, it is likely to be more.”
Previously a report to councillors said an immediate cost of £2.5m is needed for structural , building and mechanical and electrical works with a further £3.5m estimated over the next 10 years and total costs estimated at £6.25m.
The surveys were carried out using a £300,000 allocation from the £22m Margate Town Deal fund. The majority of this money has now been spent on structural reports, a night time economy report and the commissioning of Colliers to take the building to market. There is no further Town Deal monies to be used towards the next stages for the venue.
A detailed marketing pack will be aimed at securing an organisation to refurbish, improve, maintain and operate the venue for uses that could include a concert hall, theatre, event spaces or leisure and tourism uses.
Cllr Everitt said: “Colliers have the connections in the market with the people who understand the opportunity of such a complicated building and the variety of different ways it could be used.
“It has the Queen’s Hall and the Main Hall and quite an unusual arrangement. Lots of buildings were added in the 1960s which don’t necessarily improve it, it is literally labyrinthian.
“We want to get a range of approaches and ideas and we can evaluate those against a criteria of leisure uses and heritage at the top.
“And that is a big challenge, we have to respect the building’s heritage and its Grade II listing.
“We think some of the later additions are compromising its heritage status.”
Cllr Everitt says it will not necessarily be the highest monetary bid that will make an expression of interest first choice, but rather the details of how the Winter Gardens will be used, even if that means looking at ways to make up any funding shortfall.
He added: “We are very clear what the public wants, they want their Winter Gardens back and as far as is possible, that’s what we want too. But we want that delivered in a way that works better for modern needs, people have different expectations now, they expect comfort, while retaining the heritage and cultural connections with the past.”
The building hosted its last performance on August 7 last year during the Margate Soul Festival before the lease was returned to Thanet council by Your Leisure and the doors were shut in readiness for an appraisal report on the venue and its future uses.
The lease hand back came after Your Leisure faced a substantial shortfall in its income as a result of Covid with trading income down by £1.28million in 2020 compared to 2019 and outstanding liabilities in the region of £8m in terms of loans for Hartsdown and Ramsgate leisure centres.
The council, as guarantor for the leisure centre loans, could have faced extra penalties if the loans were redeemed early.
Cllr Everitt said although there could be argument over whether the venue should have been closed, it was evident things could not carry on as they were without significant investment.
He said: “It was not a drain on (the council’s) revenue budget as Your Leisure were breaking even but for the long term future investment is needed in the building and at some point that has to happen.”
The Winter Gardens is currently being cleared ready for Colliers to begin marketing. Items such as artworks, posters and other irreplaceable memorabilia are in storage. Debris and goods unlikely to be needed again will be recycled or put up for auction.
Marketing is a two stage process. Firstly, operators are being invited to submit initial expressions of interest, and visit the venue on a pre-arranged open day. Thanet District Council is seeking offers from potential partners who can commit to restoring the Winter Gardens and retaining its importance as a leisure asset to the local community.
Organisations which are interested in submitting an expression of interest can request a detailed marketing information pack, and arrange a viewing by emailing Colliers at Paul.Bugeja@colliers.com
At the second stage, which is expected to start in January 2024, all parties who have viewed the property will be invited to submit an outline of their vision for the building and how they intend to use it. A shortlist will then be created with selected organisations invited to submit a more comprehensive proposal.
Paul Bugeja, director in Colliers Licensed & Leisure team, said: “The council is seeking a partner which can honour the history of the Winter Gardens, while also bringing it up to date and making it inviting to residents as well as visitors to Margate.
“We have seen how exciting regeneration plans for landmark buildings such as the Eastbourne Winter Gardens and De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill have revitalised coastal towns. We’re looking to secure a partnership with the vision to reignite the entertainment offering in Margate and deliver on the expectations of the local community.”
Some seating was previously sold to the Granville Theatre but Thanet council says these were surplus and between 2000-3000 seats remain at the venue.
The Pavilion and Winter Gardens took just nine months to build, costing £26,000, and opened on August 3, 1911.
When completed the Pavilion and Winter Gardens consisted of: a large Concert Hall, four entrance halls, two side wings and an amphitheatre. Originally the stage could be viewed from both the main hall and the amphitheatre with the ability to enclose the stage in bad weather. The accommodation was for about 2,500 persons inside the building and 2,000 in the open air.
Auctions will take place at 10am on Thursday 23 November, Thursday 30 November and Thursday 7 December at the Frederick Andrews auction house in Maidstone. Further information is available on the auctioneer’s website.