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‘Squatters’ occupy former Empire cinema after Ace of Lanes bowling alley break-in

Bishop’s Stortford’s former Empire Cinema has been secured this week after “squatters” occupied the premises at the weekend.

The alarm was raised by mother and daughter Jane and Lara Fraser, whose Ace of Lanes bowling alley is next to the redundant premises at the Anchor Street leisure complex.

On Saturday (November 18) a worried Lara used Facebook to tell customers: “Unfortunately in the early hours of Monday morning we had a break-in.

The former Empire Cinema and Ace of Lances at the anchor Street leisure complex
The former Empire Cinema and Ace of Lances at the anchor Street leisure complex

“These men were not targeting Ace, they wanted access to the now empty Empire cinema. We secured our premises, but this evening the same men returned, gained illegal access to the cinema and have claimed squatters’ rights.

“There are currently 13 males occupying the cinema. The safety and security of our colleagues and venue are of paramount importance to us, but we are now in a difficult situation to manage. The police have attended and done everything within their means at this current time.”

Lara urged people to report any suspicious activity in and around the centre, which currently has only two other tenants: the Fraser family’s Bacchus nightclub and Nuffield Health Bishop's Stortford Fitness & Wellbeing Gym.

The chained and padlocked door to the Empire Cinema
The chained and padlocked door to the Empire Cinema

The Indie understands that Ace of Lanes was broken into at around 4am on Monday November 13. Four intruders are believed to have broken a lock on the rear fire exit door and left when an alarm was triggered. A white van was seen in the area.

A spokeswoman for Hertfordshire Constabulary said on Monday (November 20): “Police were made aware of the initial report of a break-in and conducted regular patrols in the area to monitor the situation and provide reassurance to local businesses and residents. A crime of criminal damage has been recorded and is being investigated.

“Officers have liaised with the premises' owners, who have the responsibility for evicting people in these particular circumstances.

“The premises were cleared on Saturday night and have been secured by police. The owners have also been spoken to to ensure the security of the site moving forward and to prevent any further occupation.”

Shattered glass at the Empire Cinema
Shattered glass at the Empire Cinema

Two padlocks and chains now secure the main cinema doors. One door has two shattered panes of glass and shows signs of being forced open while the lock of the other has been tampered with.

The cinema shut its doors on July 7 this year, making 17 team members, three supervisors, two operations assistants and the general manager of 19 years redundant with immediate effect.

The Bishop’s Stortford site was one of 12 Empire brand cinemas across the country. The company also operated two boutique cinemas under the Tivoli name. Administrators were appointed to try to save seven of its trading arms but Bishop’s Stortford was not among them.

This week, former chief executive Justin Ribbons confirmed the company which controlled the Anchor Street operation had been liquidated and the lease of the building was now back under the control of the landlord, Kier.

In December 2017, the developer bought the centre for £7.85m as part of its wider vision for the Goods Yard area around the railway station.

The Indie has contacted Kier for comment about the incident and details of plans for the building amid speculation it could become a cinema once more.

Since the Anchor Street leisure complex opened in 2000, the 95,000 sq ft (8,826 sq m) site has had a chequered history. When it was launched it was home to Cineworld Cinemas, Cannons Health Club, PB Bowl, KFC, McDonald's and Chicago Rock Bar and Diner. Most recently, Dough&Co pizzeria and Burger Amour fast-food closed.

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