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Old River Lane: Hertford Theatre team set to run new Bishop's Stortford arts centre

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Bishop's Stortford's £15.5m new arts centre, planned by East Herts Council, is set to be run in house by the authority's Hertford Theatre team.

The cinema-led centre is part of the wider Old River Lane project to create a cultural hub, kick-started by the 546-space multi-storey car park nearing completion at Northgate End.

The council's development partner, Cityheart, is also planning 137 new homes and 90 "senior living" apartments plus shops, restaurants and offices on the council's Causeway car parks.

Example of cinema for Old River Lane (54118636)
Example of cinema for Old River Lane (54118636)

A delivery board has been set up to guide the development and members have been considering the best way to run the scaled-down arts centre.

The council was set to spend £30m on the centre with a 544-seat theatre at its heart, but last year it trimmed its ambitions – and budget – after Government lending rules for local authorities changed and Covid-19 battered its finances.

Removal of the auditorium, coupled with demolition of the United Reformed Church hall in Water Lane as part of the wider development of the Causeway, has provoked criticism.

Example of a cafe bar area for Old River Lane (54118628)
Example of a cafe bar area for Old River Lane (54118628)

However, East Herts' leadership is determined to plough on with plans for a five-screen cinema: one of 150 seats with the facility for live acts on a raised stage, two of 80 seats – one of which would be a multi-use auditorium – and two 50-seaters.

One of the smallest screening rooms will be next to a gallery space so they can be used together or separately for private hire.

A café bar will have indoor and outdoor tables, and there will be dedicated "public realm" space for events such as outdoor theatre, music festivals and live sports screenings.

The Old River Lane project team has been working with consultants Fourth Street, who specialise in providing commercial advice and expertise to projects in the arts, heritage and entertainment sectors, to consider how the centre – with cinema as the "spine" of its business model supplemented by live events – should be operated.

Example of outdoor cafe for Old River Lane (54118631)
Example of outdoor cafe for Old River Lane (54118631)

The upshot is a recommendation that East Herts extends its service to include management of the new centre, drawing on its history of "high-quality cultural programming" because "an operator not solely focused on cinema is more likely to create a vibrant programme of live events".

With distribution support for new film releases available from specialist cinema operators, the council believes "a directly managed venue is more likely to produce a strong programme that embraces both indoor spaces and the adjacent public realm".

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