Rother District Council has voted to transform part of Bexhill's Grade I-listed De La Warr Pavilion into a pub, ending months of campaigning by conservationists and localresidents to prevent the deal going ahead.
But Monday's decision to hand over the Modernist south coast landmark to J D Wetherspoon was immediately put into doubt when it emerged that operators vying to manage the art centre's auditorium are demanding subsidies to take the contract on. The council is already planning to pay Wetherspoon to take on the high-maintenance pavilion, and now the pub chain is also being asked to make similar payments. The news of the theatre's cash demands has cast fresh doubt over the financial viability of running the building as a commercial venture and Wetherspoon's property advisers told the aj that the whole deal will be off if it must subsidise the cost of running the theatre.
'We've told the interested operators that they can have it for free, but we're not willing to subsidise it,' said Wetherspoon's property adviser Richard Harvey.
Nevertheless, the council this week voted 29 to 12 to pursue a 125-year lease with Wetherspoon to take over the management of the entire building. The value of the pub chain's own sweetener remains under wraps, but council chief executive David Powell said that it would 'show a substantial saving for the council' on the £750,000-a-year the pavilion costs it in maintenance - 10 per cent of its annual budget. The deal hinges on the agreement of a conservation plan by Wetherspoon, English Heritage and the council, and on the theatre operator making the theatre available for local community use.
The pub chain is planning to occupy the east wing of the building, using both floors. It must find the theatre operator for the west wing and the art galleries will continue to be managed by the local authority. Meanwhile, plans to build in the pavilion grounds a carbon fibre and steel bandstand, designed by Niall McLaughlin Architects, are pressing ahead and Wetherspoon backs the design (aj 16.3.00).
Conservationist group the Twentieth Century Society expressed 'dismay' at the decision. 'Having a pub in half of the building will change the entire atmosphere of the building's development over the last 10 years as an arts centre for the general public,' said director, Kenneth Powell. 'I can't see how they can carry out the use without making substantial changes.'
Wetherspoon expects to tie up the property deal within the next three weeks, but if subsidies for the theatre prove a deal-breaker, then other operators are understood to be waiting in the wings.