RISING costs could mean Chester’s long-awaited theatre and cultural venue will never get off the ground, it has been claimed.
Last week Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) unveiled its £40.5 million vision for the flagship venue in the former Odeon building.
Featuring an 800-seat theatre, a 200-seat studio theatre, two studio cinemas along with cafes, bars and the city’s library, the complex is due to open by 2016.
But opposition councillors fear escalating costs mean the city’s wait for the Gateway Theatre replacement could go on and on.
Executive members backed the proposals on Wednesday night but only after they had been bombarded with questions by Labour councillors.
Cllr Louise Gittins, shadow executive member for culture, said: “The design looks impressive. However the escalating costs really concern me.
“The cost has shot up to £41 million in nearly a year. Is this value for money?”
CWaC plans to provide £23 million from its capital programme towards the cost with £5 million coming from the Arts Council, £6 million from fundraising and £6.75m from other council funding sources.
But Cllr Gittins questioned whether relying on charitable donations was sensible and asked what the council’s fallback plan was.
She said: “Where are these philanthropists? What is the strategy to raise this money?
“Is £6 million a realistic target for Chester? What is plan B?”
Chester city councillor Samantha Dixon said she was also worried the cost of the scheme had increased.
She said: “There is no doubt and everyone agrees we need the life breathing back into the city, but I am also concerned about the costs of this development.”
Cllr Dixon said the city needed to see some progress “way before” 2016 and suggested the scheme could be phased. She also wants assurances the venue will include a cinema.
“The message has been loud and clear that a cinema should be part of this development,” she said.
“We need it to start happening last week.”
Executive member Cllr Brenda Dowding slammed Labour councillors for the negative comments and said if they supported the scheme they had a funny way of showing it.
The council believes the centre will attract more than 300,000 visitors a year and play a key role in the city’s cultural revival.
Labour leader Justin Madders reiterated the group’s desire to see the theatre come to fruition but said there were many questions that the council needed to answer.
He said the cost had increased by more than £2 million in the “past couple of weeks” and that spending £5 million to move the library less than 100 yards seemed a strange way to proceed.
He said: “We don’t want to make any apologies for asking questions. It is our job.
“It is perfectly reasonable for us to ask questions if we don’t have answers. I hope they are going to get addressed.”
Council leader Mike Jones said the authority had been incredibly prudent and recommended the proposals for approval.
Executive members agreed and the council now plans to bid for £5 million of Arts Council funding by the middle of this month.
It is envisaged a planning application will be submitted in summer 2013 with site preparation work beginning in spring 2014.
See full story in the Chester Leader