AMBITIOUS plans to end a six-year wait for a new Chester theatre have suffered a £5 million funding setback.
Cheshire West and Chester Council (CWaC) unveiled its £40.5m vision for the flagship venue at the former Odeon building in August.
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 planned to open in 2016.
CWaC has earmarked £23m for the project and hoped the Arts Council would provide £5m but yesterday the council was told its funding bid had failed.
Given the council would also need to raise £6m in donations and find £6.75m from other funding sources, the setback is likely to raise fresh doubts over the scheme’s viability.
CWaC was competing against projects from across England for a share of the Arts Council’s £50 million capital investment funding pot but missed out.
Successful bidders include Oldham Council, who were awarded £5 million to replace the town’s Coliseum Theatre, and York’s Theatre Royal which has been awarded almost £2.9 million.
Cllr Stuart Parker, executive member for culture and recreation, said the council was now investigating alternative funding streams.
He said: “While today’s news is disappointing, it is not entirely unexpected.
“We are aware of how heavily subscribed Arts Council funding streams are and the difficult decisions it faces in balancing need against budget provision, particularly having recently undergone funding cuts.
“I must emphasise that CWaC remains committed to providing our residents with a first-class theatre and library venue.
“Together with our partners, we are now investigating alternative funding streams to make up the £5m shortfall.
“This includes taking advice from the Arts Council regarding the viability of making an application under the next tranche of funding in April.”
Opposition councillors have previously expressed fears escalating project costs mean the city’s wait for the Gateway Theatre replacement could go on and on.
Former Chester MP Christine Russell, co-ordinator of the Odeon Action Group, also said she was concerned about how the project would be funded.
The Gateway Theatre was closed in 2007, the same year the Odeon cinema closed, and the city has since been described by some as a ‘cultural desert’.
Current plans would see the replacement complex housed in the Odeon and extended on to land currently occupied by Commerce House, its car park and 49 Northgate Street.
The council believes the centre would attract more than 300,000 visitors annually and play a key role in the city’s cultural revival.
Jane Beardsworth, north west regional director for Arts Council England, said: “Cheshire West and Chester Council’s application to our capital programme was for investment towards a new theatre with library, cinema and ancillary spaces.
“Cheshire West and Chester Council has shown tremendous support and commitment to this project but was unsuccessful in what was a very competitive process.
“The Arts Council’s capital programme is always oversubscribed and there were bids that were stronger in relation to our published criteria.
“We will be meeting with representatives shortly to discuss how we can support them in realising this project.”
Opposition Labour group leader Justin Madders said: "Clearly this is disappointing news and we will be meeting with officers shortly to understand the reasons for the refusal.
"The Labour group have previously expressed concerns about the significant cost of the scheme and the council's ability to fund the theatre on an ongoing basis.
"We will be asking for a review of the funding rejection and where this leaves the original plans.
"We want to see a project can meet our ambitions for Chester but we need to be sure those ambitions are affordable and realistic.
"We cannot afford to invest further time and money in a vision if it is not shared by the Arts Council who are a key player in realising that vision."