York's Barbican is back in the spotlight

PUBLISHED: 17:11 13 June 2011 | UPDATED: 21:34 20 February 2013

Jane McDonald

Jane McDonald

The re-opening of The Barbican is a great entertainment story for York as Tony Greenway reports

Welcome back, York Barbican. But what took you so long? This popular concert venue closed for refurbishment in 2004 and finally re-opens with David Gray as a headline act. This month its Morrissey. So thats two stellar names playing gigs in a building that has spent six years in the wilderness, which in the leisure and events industry is an awfully long time.

Its been sad to drive past the York Barbican recently because it looked so tatty and unloved, although it used to be one of Yorkshires premier concert venues. Built in 1989 for 15million, it featured a 1,500-seater auditorium, two swimming pools, two gyms and a multi-use sports hall, a dance studio, plus bars and a caf. Big names appeared on stage here:
Jools Holland, Stevie Winwood, Van Morrison, Tom Jones, Paul Weller and Joan Baez, for instance. It also hosted the UK Snooker Championship.

But in 2004, the Barbican controversially closed and, as a result, it seemed that York had fallen off the concert-going radar. Big name musicians bypassed the city.

The building, meanwhile, just sat there, unused and festering, while a redevelopment scheme was nailed down by York City Council which owns the site. As time went on, residents became angry about some of the proposals and started a Save Our Barbican campaign.

Stories emerged in the local press about plans to turn the site into an entertainment venue with apartments, hotels and even a casino; and when a scheme for a replacement swimming pool was shelved, locals anger turned into foaming fury. Then the councils chosen developer, Absolute Leisure, went into administration.

Finally, in September of last year, the council announced a new preferred bidder to develop and manage the Barbican, SMG Europe (Holdings) Ltd. SMG controls Manchesters Arena and The Bridgewater Hall, and Newcastles Metro Radio Arena, among others. It has now has a 30-year lease on the building.

Its also overseen a 2million refurbishment of the Barbican, but sports facilities are out. We were quite clear that they were never going to be part of the mix, says Nick Reed, SMGs chief executive.

As I understand it, new (sports) facilities have come online in the city so the arguments prevalent in the early days of the buildings closure are no longer as sustainable. Before, the Barbican was trying to satisfy a lot of different needs within one building.

These days, not many people want to re-open old wounds and prefer to look to the Barbicans future. Ernie Dickinson, former chair of the Save Our Barbican campaign, didnt want to be interviewed; but he did make this statement: Were pleased with the new company and we think they are ideal to do a good job. This is what we were campaigning for. The only shame is that we have lost the sporting facilities.

I also put some questions to councillor Nigel Ayre, the executive member for Leisure and Culture at York City Council, who emailed us with his responses. He doesnt believe that the Barbicans long closure took York off the concert-goer route. York has never lost its reputation, he says.

It is a thriving and cultural city and has continued to attract big names; for example, both the Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs have played in York since the Barbican closed.

Its true, they did: but big name artists such as Stevie Winwood and Tom Jones were never likely to have appeared in smaller York venues; and, after the closure, Jools Holland simply re-routed to the Harrogate International Conference Centre and Harewood House, near Leeds. Now the Barbican has reopened, however, Jools is back and playing a concert in December. And would the city really have landed Morrissey without a major concert stage to tempt him?

Whatever the effect of its closure, Nigel Ayres believes the building had to find a new way of operating. It was clear from the outset, and admitted by the then Labour administration, that the blend of leisure and entertainment at the Barbican was not sustainable as a business model, he says. As a result, council tax payers were subsidising the venue by about 750,000 each year in todays terms.

To compound matters, the Barbican was only hosting on average 40 events a year reaching a maximum of 70 each year. There was also the problem of a 20-year-old swimming pool in need of replacement or serious financial investment.

Now the doors are open again and everyone can check out the refurbishment for themselves. Were repurposing the building to reflect its anticipated use as a pure entertainment and conference facility rather than one which had a mixed portfolio of entertainment and sport, says SMGs Nick Reed.

What used to be gym and fitness studio will now be a restaurant; and a suite of rooms which used to be a dance studio and a crche will now be meetings rooms. The box office area is being remodelled. Were refurbishing the VIP lounge and redecorating the bars. Contemporary lighting and new ticketing systems will also be installed and dressing rooms upgraded.

The auditorium will continue to hold 1,500 seated and 1,800 or 1,900 standing capacity. The swimming pool site is vacant; but Nick says that one of the proposed uses is to turn it into a hotel. SMG would like to be able to run around 250 events a year at the Barbican. Nigel Ayre notes that it will create 60 new jobs for the city, and a boost to the York economy of between 9million and 12million a year.

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