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The Harrogate Convention Centre, its purpose and future

29th November 2022

The Harrogate Convention Centre

On 29th November some 60 members and invited guests spurned the World Cup to attend a briefing at the Harrogate Convention Centre. We were told of the challenges facing the venue and given a confident vision of the future. Sadly the director, Paula Lorimer, could not be there to greet us, but we were made very welcome by Head of Operations Michael Constantine.

Michael talked about the Centre’s history, now more than 50 years old, and its size, a footprint greater than the rest of the Council’s public estate put together. An elegant venue in its time, by the 1990s it had reached the top five of conference and exhibition centres in the UK. But since then its fortunes have been in gentle but persistent decline until it is now well outside the top ten.

So why is this?

First, the venue is tired, after years of insufficient investment in repairs and renewals.

Second, it cannot accommodate the current key conference market (500 delegates or more) nor can it provide the flexible breakout spaces required.

Third, newer venues (such as Liverpool and Manchester) are major competitors with more contemplated, such as Gateshead and Leeds.

The good news is that customers love Harrogate. All that is needed is a venue that reflects the quality of the destination. The Centre still delivers a massive economic benefit to the town and district, attracting 157,000 visitors each year with an economic impact (for the hospitality, retail and leisure sectors) of some £35m.

So what are the options?

The Council, who own the Centre, could “do nothing”, continue as it is with minimal investment. But that would only lead to further decline. Forensic accountants KPMG have estimated that, over a 40 year period,“do nothing”would result in the Centre losing some £250m. This would result in a massive ratepayer subsidy.

Or the Centre could “do the minimum”, see vital improvements to the venue’s infrastructure but not the fundamental redevelopment needed to restore the competitive edge. The 40 year loss might reduce to about £113m, but still hardly satisfactory.

Or the Centre could “do something”, by some degree the most attractive of the options, seeing the 1980s buildings substantially redeveloped and upgraded.

But Michael was at pains to point out that “do something” would not be cheap. Even the first phase (approximately the eastern half of the venue)is likely to cost some £46m. Even so, KPMG’s model indicates that “do something” would eliminate the deficit and indeed convert into a £29m surplus over the 40 year period.

So “Do something” is the option being vigorously pursued, with the new unitary council already showing its commitment by agreeing for Harrogate to invest some £3m to work up phase 1 in detail including tendered costs. Yes, the capital cost remains to be found, perhaps from a mixture of borrowings, authority reserves and central government funding. An application has already been made for a £20m grant from the levelling up fund. But Michael is confident it can be found.

So a bright future is predicted and Michael finished by asking us for constructive and nurturing feedback, support and encouragement - and any good ideas that the Centre team have not already thought of.

So that is our challenge!

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