Harrogate Convention Centre director says it's right to look at all options for the venue in build-up to £49m decision
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Director Paula Lorimer, who took over the role in 2019 after two decades of top level experience in the events industry, is a firm supporter of making the town’s biggest venue match-fit for the growing challenges of the 21st century.
But, with Harrogate Convention Centre’s owners North Yorkshire Council now only weeks away from deciding whether to taking forward designs for the biggest refurbishment since its doors first opened in 1982, the venue’s boss said it was right the authority looks at all the options.
“I am in total agreement with North Yorkshire Council doing due diligence,” said the HCC’s director.
“They are mulling over what would be a multi-million pound investment.
"I’m very comfortable with the approach the council is taking.
"Whether it will make the right decision, isn’t for me to say, but it’s right they should look at all the options.
"There needs to be a Plan B and I think that is possible.”
Before Harrogate Convention Centre’s previous owners, Harrogate Borough Council, was abolished last year to make way for a bigger, more powerful North Yorkshire Council, the authority was set on transforming the venue to make it more competitive.
But the executive at North Yorkshire Council, which is scheduled to decide on the £49m refurbishment designs in early spring, will do so not only with a £30m shortfall in the county’s annual budget but the knowledge that two previous bids for government money were rejected.
Such is the tough financial landscape facing local authorities, Richard Flinton, chief executive of North Yorkshire Council, admitted earlier this month that selling the convention centre’s facilities, which also includes the Royal Hall, in part or in whole to the private sector could not be 100% ruled out, though it wasn’t an aspiration.
While some in the town worry about Harrogate’s ‘crown jewels’ now being controlled from Northallerton, Paula Lorimer with her experience with the politics of the exhibition trade in Manchester, says there is no reason to think the worst.
"Since last year’s local government reorganisation, it’s been pleasing to see so many Harrogate faces stepping into officer roles in tourism and culture at North Yorkshire Council,” said the HCC’s director.
"It’s good that the council is fully focused on the future of Harrogate Convention Centre.
"Harrogate is the second largest economy in the North Yorkshire authority area.
"They’ve looked at Harrogate and have seen it is very well-run borough and know how important HHC is.
"Harrogate Convention Centre is not a normal venue in the sense that we are there to provide an economic benefit for the town and its hotels and hospitality businesses.
"But I believe it would benefit from a more commercial model, which may mean a partnership with the private sector rather than selling it off.
"Harrogate is the only major conference town in the UK except for Brighton which is entirely publicly-owned."
The 2,000-seat conference auditorium, plus more than 13,000 sqm of exhibition space, has been a political hot potato for most of its 42-year history, stuck between the civic role it’s been assigned and the financial needs of a business which operates in the private sector.
Although refurbishment, whether that’s the full £49m design or a more partial approach, has long been regarded as a ‘magic bullet’ for Harrogate’s battle with bigger rivals such as Leeds, the Harrogate Convention Centre’s director is convinced the venue is on the right track already in ways that matter.
"Had those bids for government money for refurbishment been successful, we would obviously be in a very different place at this moment," said Paula Lorimer.
"But HCC has just had its most successful year since 2014.
"The town was packed and bustling just last week during the Harrogate Christmas & Gift Fair with visitor numbers up by 11% compared with last year.
"Our lettings are on the up. There’s been an increase by a third since 2019.
"The huge rise in fuel bills has made our financial position look worse than it is.
"It is a bit of a myth that everything we do is related to investing in refurbishment.
"Refurbishment is not the only thing which will improve the performance of Harrogate Convention Centre.”
The last round of bidding by North Yorkshire Council for money from the Government’s Levelling Up Fund saw it receive £19 million for redeveloping Catterick Garrison’s town centre.