The centre has 140,000 sq ft of exhibition space and a 2,000+ auditorium. Credit: NYC

North Yorks rows back on venue overhaul

With estimated phase one costs alone now outstripping the original whole project price of £47m by around £10m, the council is reviewing plans to redevelop Harrogate Convention Centre.

North Yorkshire Council’s executive will next week discuss proposals to pull back from pursuing a contract for the first phase of the intended two-stage revamp.

Instead, more affordable options will be explored at what is an integral part of Harrogate’s valuable conferencing sector.  The preferred option is for interventions that would allow the venue to remain in operation throughout.

Executive director for finance, Cllr Gareth Dadd, who is the authority’s deputy leader, said: “The convention centre is a very important venue for both Harrogate itself and the county’s wider economy, and we are therefore committed to ensuring that it continues to play a key role in the future.

“However, all major projects are being affected by the high rates of inflation and the rising costs of materials and labour.

“We need to make sure that we are providing the best value for money for residents and businesses across North Yorkshire, and we will carefully consider the options that are available for renovating the Harrogate Convention Centre.

“We need to decide how best to take the re-development plans forward while protecting the impact that would have on the public purse and the economy of the town.”

A two-phase development plan was drawn up eight years ago, with the first stage due to revamp the existing building.

The second phase of the plan would see the existing exhibition halls replaced with a new event space.

Overall, the project was expected to cost £47m. However, when a business case revealed that the first phase alone was estimated to cost £48m, the second stage of the development was deferred.

A Levelling Up Fund bid for £20m proved unsuccessful, and rising costs have meant that the first phase of the redevelopment is now expected to be in the region of £57.2m – in addition to the revenues lost while the centre closes.

The convention centre’s director, Paula Lorimer, said: “We recognise that there is a real need for investment in the building, but more affordable options should also be explored. Alternative plans that are being considered would prevent shutting large parts of the venue for significant periods of time to avoid the loss of valuable revenue.

“This building is integral to the visitor economy of Harrogate. Its conferences, exhibitions, corporate events, banquets and live entertainment provide jobs and business to the town’s shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and hotels – worth about £45m a year to the local economy.

“I do back the recommendation that is due to be discussed by the executive, as I have been a long-standing supporter of investment in the convention centre for a number of years and the venue must remain open during the works.”

Lorimer said income is now at the highest level since 2014 and the number of forward bookings is also the highest in recent memory.

She said: “This demonstrates that the venue is doing well, and tactical investment is the way forward to keeping the venue operational.”

However, the building has problems with ageing heating and air conditioning systems and there are also increasing maintenance and utility costs, as well as a layout that presents challenges for many events and conferences.

The report to the executive recommends that councillors await the results of soft market testing before making a decision on the way forward, which is set to upgrade the facility in a more manageable way without closing it for long periods of time.

NYC currently supports the centre with a subsidy of £2.7m each year.

The centre, which is situated in the heart of Harrogate, opened in 1982 and has a 2,000-seat auditorium and 140,000 sq ft of exhibition space.

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