Time for the Performance to Begin

The Marketing Derby office is located right in the heart of the city, in Riverside Chambers - a wonderful conversion of the art deco styled Magistrates Court into serviced offices.

Diagonal to us is the decidedly sleek, glassed QUAD – a vibrant hive of cultural activity that attracts over 200,000 visitors annually. Across the road, is the closed down hulk of a building, the brooding, bricked Assembly Rooms and finally, our neighbour, just opposite, is the regenerated Council House.

Being home to the city’s democracy means of course occasional demonstrations gathering on the Council House steps. Riverside Chambers has been our home for two years and during that time I’ve seen all types of protest - from homeless camp-outs, to collectives of loud drums, bells and piercing whistles.

There was a demonstration the other week that had a more pleasant air.

October temperatures hitting 21 degrees meant windows were open and in drifted the gentle sound of choral song. This was clearly a demonstration with a difference.

It turned out to be a group of people from the Derby Arts and Theatre Association (DATA), expressing a view that Derby City Council’s emerging plans for replacing the Assembly Rooms were insufficiently ambitious and seeking to be consulted in the ongoing process.

It turns out, that night, the Council’s Cabinet was considering pressing the green button on the next stage of work required to progress a replacement, essentially committing a further £475,000 to seek a commercial operator, develop outline designs and explore funding opportunities.

DATA won the right to be consulted and the next stage will be on hold until this is done.

This year, the Assembly Rooms is ‘celebrating’ its 40th anniversary, having been opened with much pomp and ceremony by the Queen Mother in 1977. It will soon be four years since it closed, following a fire in the adjacent car park.

I think it’s fair to say that the Assembly Rooms was used, rather than loved. We all have memories of various events it hosted; Genesis in their pomp, the snooker, a party political conference, dinners and concerts.

Towards the end of its time, it became home to the rising genre of stand-up comedians. Indeed, in his autobiography, Dara O Briain describes the Assembly Rooms as being the perfect venue for that type of show – a view I can support having seen him perform there and almost dying of laughter.

I’m okay with DATA being consulted, as Derby’s thriving cultural scene must have a voice. It’s important to consider the replacement carefully, to get it right. Those who live, work and play in the city are all stakeholders, as whatever is built will need to serve us for 50 years. 

But, Derby, listen up, we cannot allow the hiatus to last any longer than absolutely necessary.

We all have views on what we would like to see but the harsh truth is this, it’s not what we might want that matters, it’s what will work that matters.

So, how do we know what will work?

The answer is to do as businesses do, that is to carry out a market assessment, using experts who do this for a living, to give us an honest view of the cost and viability of various options.

That work has now been done.

Derby City Council, via their strategic property advisors Cushman and Wakefield, commissioned two companies to look at the numbers and make recommendations.

Those companies were IPW and HOK.

I hadn’t heard of these guys either but it turns out they are world leaders in their field and have impressive CVs.

IPW worked up the business case for numerous venues including the Edinburgh Convention Bureau, Leeds Arena and the Sochi Concert Hall in Russia.

HOK have 23 offices across the world and recent commissions include the Detroit Events Arena, Barcelona FC and the wonderful Francis Crick Institute next to St Pancras Station.

These are not some non-league players earning a quick buck. IPW and HOK are the Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo of their field and we should consider very carefully what they say.

In a nutshell, their market assessment is that, considering the population size, affluent demographic make-up and existing regional competition, Derby can sustain a commercially operated, 3,000 capacity venue that can host events, concerts, conferences, dinners and tours.

This will cost £32m. The only other option is a lyric theatre that will cost £59m. 

The Council, in considering this market assessment, and its ability to raise the money, has decided that this first option is preferred.

In other words, the 'New Assembly Rooms' will be twice as big, attract at least 322,000 people, support 395 jobs, contribute £10m each year to the city’s economy and act as a catalyst for the Cathedral Quarter and St Peter’s Quarter.

The challenge is how to raise the money. Obviously, there is the insurance cash, plus the fact that the taxpayer has already thrown in £8.6m via the D2N2 LEP. Sales of city centre assets and some borrowing should help close the gap.

A new performance venue is already the number one priority in the city masterplan. It’s supported by the public-private Derby Renaissance Board and Marketing Derby recently held some business Bondholder focus groups that clearly reinforced this.

The message is clear - have the confidence to get on, so that we can retain more of the wealth we create as a city.

Derby is proud of its DNA as a city of makers, a city of doers.

Each week, at Pride Park Stadium, as players pass the ball around, unsure as whether to commit to shoot, the fans shout in unison  - ‘Come on Derby!’

Time for passing around the box is over. It’s time for the performance to begin.

Come on Derby!