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Councillors set to debate on potential £23 million investment for arts and entertainment in South Somerset

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In January, South Somerset Councillors are to debate whether to agree in principle to progress the development of a substantial project that will transform The Octagon Theatre and see major improvements at the venue.

The project, set to cost in the region of £23 million excluding VAT, would see the theatre based in Yeovil, add a fly tower and circle that would take the seating from 622 to 900 - this would mean big advances in productions that could attend the venue including touring plays and musicals. Work would also see the venue become fully accessible throughout, add two additional boutique spaces which could potentially be a cinema/studio plus and additional cinema. The venue would also see purpose built studios created with an improved community Café Hub and separate restaurants areas.

Above: Artists’ impression of what the auditorium at The Octagon Theatre could look like if Councillors take the decision to agree in principle to progress the development of a substantial project that will transform The Octagon Theatre and see major improvements at the venue.

A report on the project is being presented to District Executive Committee on Thursday 7th January whereby Councillors will decide whether to agree in principle to progress the development of the project and the underwriting of the total net project costs, up to £23.01m.

If Councillors decide to agree in principle to progressing the development, subject to a further report being bought to Executive Committee once the full financial implications including VAT are confirmed, it would enable Octagon Theatre staff to apply to funders that would reduce the amount required from the council.

The Octagon Theatre has been entertaining audiences since 1974 and attracts many visitors from far and wide with a diverse range of artists and events from big name comedians, classical music and opera to rock and folk music, the very best in variety alongside superb plays and ballet, and not forgetting the blockbuster pantomime. The theatre is also the home to many local community groups where local talent is regularly celebrated. Last year 125,000 people bought a ticket for an event at The Octagon Theatre whilst thousands more took part in one of the weekly classes as part of our Octagon Academy participatory programme.

Above: Artists’ impression of what The Octagon Theatre could look like if Councillors take the decision to agree in principle to progress the development of a substantial project that will transform The Octagon Theatre and see major improvements at the venue.

Councillor Mike Best, portfolio holder for Health & Well-Being at South Somerset District Council, said: “Potentially, this could be a massive investment within South Somerset, making this premier venue even more attractive to visitors and also performers; so we really could open up the market for attracting bigger and better performances here in the South West.

“This is a key decision for my fellow councillors to make because of the large investment, but a project plan and the finances involved have been scrutinised by everyone so far involved in the project. The project has the potential to pay for itself over time and not cost the taxpayer a penny. This really could mark a major investment for the local area, with wide reaching benefits for our communities across the region.”

Councillor Peter Seib, portfolio holder for Finance, added: “The Octagon is a fantastic draw, bringing visitors in from across the region whilst delivering huge social value by supporting many local performance groups. However, the theatre urgently needs a significant amount of money spending on repairs just to stay open and it is reliant on council taxpayer subsidy.

“What is proposed is a step-change investment to transform the offer, bringing national touring shows and competing with major centres like Bristol whilst still keeping its local arts scene focus. An enlarged Octagon would be highly sustainable and would operate free of council subsidy even at pricing appropriate to local residents and user groups.

“We are fighting town centre decline across the District caused by the collapse of shop-based retail, and the long-term effects of COVID. A new, distinctive and defining cultural offer would counter that, bringing more visitors in, and enhancing the area's attractiveness to inward investors looking to re-locate their business, and their family, to South Somerset.

“In many ways, this type of investment defines the place-making role of a District Council, responding creatively to local economic needs."

The report going to District Executive Committee can be seen on our District Executive Committee January Report Pack.

Questions & Answers

Why are Councillors only looking to agree the project in principle at present?

We are currently seeking detailed advice on VAT implications with this project and await a full response from HMRC. Currently we have a strong financial forecast for the scale of the proposals and a sound business case for how it could be delivered and paid back. However, we cannot finalise the financial commitments for the project to the council just yet without more detailed VAT advice. When it is available a financial decision can be taken by the council.  However, if an agreement in principle is received in January to the concepts and proposals developed to date, this will enable further time and resource to be invested in progressing the project.

How is the project set to be funded?

A large capital development like this proposal is an expensive undertaking and there are of course risks involved that will need to be carefully managed.

At South Somerset District Council, there are robust business plans and development plans in place and the council has an excellent track-record of delivering large scale build projects for the community. The total cost, including architects and consultants’ fees/charges and a contingency fund is £23million. We know this is no small sum to be found and this would mark a major investment for the area.

The council will look to secure around £5million from national funding bodies like Arts Council England. It would be great to see national funding coming into our district rather than being spent elsewhere and we are confident that our commitment to the project will attract this level of funding to support our bid.

Through local funding we are aiming to raise £250,000 and this has already begun with our ‘Name A Seat’ campaign and successful fundraising from The Foyer Club Charity who have been fundraising to support the ongoing development of the theatre.

We will secure funding from other grant making bodies, including recovery grants, Section 106, Community Investment Levy and other sources.

SSDC could loan itself a significant portion or all of the funds that would be repaid (plus interest). Payments from the ticket levy (paid by users of the theatre) would mean that over time the theatre will pay for itself and the project will not have cost the tax payer anything.

SSDC does also have a capital grants scheme so a portion could also be made as a capital grant that would not be repayable.

What are capacity rates now for the venue?

The Octagon Theatre currently plays to 83% capacity throughout the year with an average of 250 performances staged annually, well above the national averages for theatres.

The theatre is popular with artists and producers who appreciate the friendly welcome from our technicians and warm and responsive audiences.

Over the last ten years The Octagon audiences have increased dramatically (from 78,546 in 2009/10 to 125,331 in 2019/20) and, put simply, the current facility has been outgrown and the record usage is taking its toll on the 50-year-old building.

For example, while the front of house areas were extended and seating refurbished in 2003, there is no disabled access backstage for visitors, staff, artists or those with mobility needs and we currently only have one accessible toilet situated front of house. The front of house areas have begun to look tired, dated and often feel cramped. The popular and profitable café bar is hampered by being wrapped around the auditorium with diners’ meals interrupted by the arrival of audience members. The kitchen is small and inadequate for the size of the restaurant and the front of house areas lack air conditioning. The popular Octagon Academy classes take place in a small studio obstructed by a supporting pillar in the middle of the room, with no windows or air cooling and a lack of ceiling height for dance classes. All of this aside, it is a very well loved and used venue, but could be so much more to our communities and visitors.

Why make the investment now?

This project has been in development for some time now, pre-Covid, and although the pandemic has affected the way we operate, it’s not slowed down our ambitious plans to invest for the future. Whilst it is important to be prudent it is also important to have hope and optimism for the future.

We know our audiences are keen to return when it is safe to do so and the uncertainty we currently all face is temporary. When it is over we will need music, theatre and arts to bring us all back together. Those places that bring friends and families together to feel joy will be more important than ever and we will appreciate them even more.

During times of economic downturn and instability theatre, arts and cinemas tend to perform very well and often show an increase in attendance. This was the case in the financial crisis when our audience continued to grow. It is understood that this is because people will spend their money on things that ‘cheer them up’ and experiences that families and friends can do together, a trip to the pantomime for Christmas, or a concert to escape becomes an affordable treat. The construction of the development and larger operation will create and establish jobs. It is estimated that the developed Octagon Theatre would create an additional £9.2million that would be retained locally every year. Visitors to The Octagon Theatre support our ‘night-time economy’ including hotels, restaurants, car parks, and shops in the area. Businesses will also be more attracted to an area with a stronger cultural offering.

This project offers a compelling economic case and significant improvements for the health and well-being of our residents.

The existing Octagon Theatre will still need refurbishment if this project is not taken forward, but these plans offer so much more and promise of a brighter and more exciting tomorrow.

What about your other venue, Westlands Entertainment Venue?

We are very fortunate in Yeovil to have two great entertainment venues. The team who manage The Octagon Theatre took on the management of Westlands Entertainment Venue following its refurbishment in 2016.

Westlands is home to a beautiful ballroom which is a flexible space that can be used for banqueting, parties, conferencing, trade fairs, standing gigs and live performances (seating 870). The venue has meeting and function rooms which are used for both smaller regular events and larger scale events like Yeovil Beerfest. Having a joint management team means that the programme and activities complement each other.

During the construction phase that would close The Octagon Theatre we are lucky that we will be able to move many shows and activities to Westlands Entertainment Venue allowing us to retain our audiences and continue providing excellent entertainment in South Somerset. Westlands is a superb multi-purpose venue but it will never be a theatre, as the venue lacks the stage size and backstage facilities, to present large, technically challenging shows. The redevelopment will see both venues play to their strengths and the film programme at Westlands relocated to purpose built, comfortable and luxurious cinemas at The Octagon Theatre. We believe with both venues we can diversify our programme and offer an exceptional programme of performances, events and activities that will make Yeovil the destination for culture and entertainment and further support the local economy.

If Councillors decide to go ahead with this, what is the next stage?

Councillors of South Somerset District Council will decide whether to take this project forward, subject to a final financial case being presented to include VAT implications. We will then consult with our audience, artists, local community, business groups and national bodies to get their input, advice and thoughts on our proposals.

When can the public have their say?

We are a little way off any consultation stages yet, but rest assured that when the time is right, we will share plans with you and fully make sure you have the opportunity to have your say. We have a dedicated consultation section set up on the SSDC website and we’ll post all details there and make sure any consultations are well advertised and look forward to receiving feedback from all in due course.

Where can I see more about the plans?

Our proposals are at the very early stages of development and if Councillors decide they would like to progress with the project, we will develop and release further information as and when we can to keep all informed.

Thank you. You response is appreciated.

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