The show WILL go on! Major regeneration of Alban Arena mooted
Matt Adams & Laura Bill
- Credit: Alan Davies
St Albans' flagship entertainment venue could undergo a major regeneration aimed at attracting bigger shows and brighter talent.
The Alban Arena opened in 1968 under the name of the Civic Hall, and over the past 53 years has hosted the likes of Dire Straits, Morecambe and Wise, Cliff Richard, Status Quo and Motorhead, as well as its celebrated annual pantomime.
But the aging venue faces major logistical problems which desperately need tackling, including escalating maintenance costs, a layout and capacity which does not meet requirements of desired performances and productions, and inadequate facilities for customers.
The existing stage alone is not deep enough for many West End shows, restricting the sort of performances which the Arena can host.
The surrounding space, including the seating and public square outside the Arena, is also dated and in need of regeneration.
Financial pressures of the pandemic aside, owners St Albans district council (SADC) could not afford to fund the regeneration of the Arena and improvements to the surrounding area.
But changes to Treasury rules in terms of borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) mean that if SADC invests in capital assets like the nearby Lockey House, any subsequent income streams must be directed into housing projects or regeneration schemes, rather than generally supporting council finances.
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Following months of political debate, SADC received approval to purchase Lockey House - the building currently occupied by Barclays and Nationwide in St Peter's Street - in February as part of its plans for the City Centre Opportunity Site project, with the intention of using surplus income from the acquisition to fund the Arena regeneration.
A council spokesperson said plans for the Arena were at a very early stage: “The council has a longer term plan developing, currently at a very early inception stage, to redevelop the Arena to provide a new theatre, as part of a later phase of the City Centre Opportunity Site redevelopment.
"We are currently considering feasibility and how this could be financed, and timing and fuller details have yet to be determined.”
Arena patron and panto legend Bob Golding welcomed the news: “Well it certainly sounds potentially very exciting - here’s hoping! Lots of ifs and buts in there, but the Arena is long overdue a makeover and major investment. Dare we peek at the light in that long tunnel?”
Pantomime impresario Paul Hendy, of Evolution Productions, said: “It would be wonderful news if the Alban Arena were to undergo major renovation. We are very proud of the Arena’s reputation for having one of the best pantomimes in the country so if the front of house facilities and backstage areas were to be improved, it would really enhance the theatre-going experience for audiences and performers.”
Award-winning actress Jemma Carlisle said: “It would be lovely for the exterior to match the heart of the building! As a friend of the late former manager, Frank Leclezio who was so committed to the success of the venue I personally feel it would be a fitting tribute to him for the council to continue to invest in the Alban Arena as a much loved asset for the people of St Albans.”
Maltings artistic director Adam Nichols, who put on a production of Peter Pan at the Arena last year, added: "It is clear that city centres of the mid to late 2020s will be led by culture, leisure and hospitality rather than retail. In this context, any investment in our local cultural infrastructure is to be welcomed.
"Any such investment must also take account of how our cultural habits are likely to change in the aftermath of the pandemic - the concerts, gigs and theatre performances of the future are going to look very different and the venues in which they take place need to reflect that.
"Above all we need to bring all parts of our creative community together and place them more prominently at the heart of our city’s landscape and infrastructure.”