J D Wetherspoon's controversial bid to turn the historic Grade I-listed De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill into a pub was on the verge of collapse this week after the company admitted it was having grave difficulties finding a theatre operator which does not want a subsidy of £300,000 to £500,000 per year to take on that part of the building. Rother District council last week signalled its own desires by agreeing to pay a team headed by John McAslan and Partners £75,000 to work up a new £6 million lottery-backed scheme to add a major new art and architecture gallery instead.
'It has stalled somewhat, ' said Wetherspoon's property agent Richard Harvey. 'Most theatre operators we're talking to are looking for a subsidy and we can't afford to look after the upkeep of the building and subsidise someone else's business. Until a suitable operator materialises we are in limbo.'
The company has talked to 'half a dozen firms' but wants to make sure its own condition on the deal - leaving the 1200-seat theatre to others - is met. Wetherspoon is trying to find 'a middle ground' with two remaining firms but the faltering deal and the emergence of a potential lottery scheme will be welcome news to conservationists and local groups who have resisted the takeover.
The council has opted to pay a team headed by McAslan's, with engineers F J Samuely and Rybka Battle, to work up a major upgrade of the east wing to provide a high specification art gallery space of about 350m 2. This will be paid for from £120,000 which Rother was granted by the Arts Council. McAslan's project architect Adam Brown said the construction and restoration funding should come from a £4.1million grant already earmarked by the Arts Lottery Board and around £1.5 million which they hope to win from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
'The Wetherspoon's proposal is looking increasingly shaky and was not very serious, ' said Brown. 'It's withering on the vine.'
Rother's project officer Alan Haydon told the AJ the new-look pavilion would total around 1000m 2of indoor and outdoor arts space, including areas for use on the building's flat roof. It would become, he said, a 'centre for architecture' as well as the largest visual arts centre in the south.
Council chief executive David Powell said the new scheme would mean the council having to stump up £300,000 to £400,000 per year in maintenance, as opposed to £1 million, but he 'was not looking forward' to even that alternative.
The conservation lobby has been aided by a list of high-profile letters believed to have come from as high up as members of the Royal family, as well as from Lord Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw, Sir Denys Lasdun and English Heritage's chief executive Pam Alexander. Three thousand locals also signed a petition against the proposals.
The Pavilion Trust, meanwhile, has been forced to postpone construction of a new £50,000 bandstand by Niall McLaughlin (AJ 16.3.00) - planned for this summer - until 2001 or whenever the situation is resolved. See page 20.