By NEIL RIDDELL
TENDERS are to be invited to build Shetland’s £9.2m cinema and music venue from Monday after councillors this week voted to renew the SIC’s commitment to the Mareel project following a dramatic debate.
If all goes according to plan for Shetland Arts – which is still waiting for confirmation of various external funding applications and almost £1m from the council’s development committee – the diggers could move in at North Ness within four months. It has confirmed that several expressions of interest were received during the pre-tender process and once a contractor is appointed, the plan is for initial groundwork on the site to get underway in October or November, with the doors of the venue projected to open sometime in the summer of 2010.
It took the casting vote of convener Sandy Cluness finally to approve the council’s remaining £4.45m contribution – it has already spent £750,000 taking the project to its present stage – following a generally cordial 70-minute debate on Wednesday which left councillors split, with nine members in favour and nine against.
Four members were absent because they were out of Shetland on meetings or on holiday.
That left Mr Cluness to give the venue – which will include a 750-capacity music hall, a 160-seater cinema, café-bar, recording studios and rehearsal areas – his nod of approval, allowing the venue to proceed by the narrowest of margins.
The vote had been unclear until the last minute after nine councillors spoke against the project and eight in favour, with Addie Doull the only member not to make his feelings known before deciding to cast his vote for Mareel.
“You can go ahead and build Mareel,” the convener said with evident relish, to a shout of “come on Sandy!” immediately followed by cheers of delight and lengthy applause from the 40 or so supporters of the project. They had gathered in the Town Hall to hear members debating a report on the business plan for the venue, requested by several councillors led by Allison “Flea” Duncan six weeks ago.
The report, compiled by the SIC’s executive director Hazel Sutherland, finance head Graham Johnston and interim head of economic development Neil Grant, described the business plan as “robust and well-researched” but said it was “light” in terms of estimates for expenditure, particularly in terms of maintenance and energy costs, and “challenging” in terms of reliance on new audiences and income streams. It said councillors needed to make a “political judgement” on whether there was adequate provision for music and cinema-related events at present.
Mr Cluness had earlier described opposition among his fellow members to the project as “profoundly depressing”, having listened as several said the report had confirmed their suspicions that some of the projections contained within business plan were far from robust and could require public subsidy for years to come.
A drained and relieved Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons told The Shetland Times afterwards that he was looking forward to seeing the venue being built, adding that the SIC’s backing would be a huge help in securing remaining funding. “It was nerve-racking, but a very fair and open debate,” he said. “It is hugely significant that the council has reaffirmed the commitment it has made.”
Shetland Arts has already secured a £2.1m grant from the lottery-funded Scottish Arts Council and the body is expecting to hear the result of further applications for funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the European Structural Fund in August.
The same month will see the council’s development committee take a decision on whether to put an additional £965,000 towards the project, which would take the SIC’s total contribution to £6.2m, though it is expected that Mr Duncan and others will attempt to strike one final blow at Mareel. West Mainland member Gary Robinson has called into question the convener’s handling of this week’s vote and following the debate said that the “war” was not over yet and opponents would be considering their options in the coming weeks.
But Lerwick North councillor Allan Wishart, who voted against because of his concern about the council’s finances, said that although he needed time to reflect, his “gut reaction” was that the council had made a decision and needed to stick with it, while he also felt Mr Cluness had handled the debate properly and fairly. Any further attempt to pull the plug on Mareel in August, when contractors have been put in place, would be “an issue of conscience”, he said.
“It was pretty intense, but a reasoned debate and I’m content with that,” he said. “It was very reasonable on both sides and democracy had its say. If there’s going to be more fighting then that’s to be thought about very carefully. My instant reaction was that’s it, done and dusted, and we move onto something else.”
During the tense Town Hall debate, many elected members had raised grave concerns over a range of details within the business plan, which claims Mareel will break even within three years of opening its doors, by 2013.
The plan for Mareel is reliant on staging 177 events annually in the music hall, assuming an average attendance of 186 people – in other words, the average person in Shetland would attend roughly one and a half musical events each year. In terms of its two screens, the intention is to more than double the amount of cinema-going in the isles to 108 people per day, compared with 52 people a day during 2007/8.
Most contentious of all for some critics was the projection of balancing the books through selling £378,000-worth of alcohol, snacks and other drinks across the bar at the venue’s café, prompting fears that the council would be asked to subsidise the facility for years. Shetland Charitable Trust has provided a commitment to underwrite any deficit in running costs, but only for the first year after Mareel opens.
Among the most vociferous opponents was former Shetland Arts trustee Gussie Angus, who said the business plan was “shot through with holes”. Figures for alcohol revenue were “wildly, hopelessly optimistic” according to one expert he had consulted, while projected cinema attendance figures would be “in your dreams”, he told supporters of the project.
Mr Angus said public subsidy would inevitably be needed to keep Mareel running and also raised the spectre of state aid, reminding members that a complaint had been sent to the European Commission and the Office of Fair Trading by representatives of the local licensing trade. On that matter, the officers’ report states: “initial indications suggest that the current proposals do not need to be considered in terms of state aid, because the music hall and cinema venue can be deemed to be a service provided by the local authority”, though it also points out that sales from the café bar will represent 44 per cent of Mareel’s total revenue, which has caused some in the licensing trade to cry foul.
Mr Wishart said he was surprised the report had described the business plan as “robust”. He was concerned that it had not been updated for recent rises in energy costs and, although he wanted to see Mareel happen, he also wanted a new AHS, ferries, fixed links and a Fetlar breakwater. “I think it’s a case of getting our priorities right,” he said.
Councillor Duncan again used the phrase “white elephant” to describe Mareel and, referring to the need for care homes and new schools, said he wanted to put the interests of senior citizens and the education of young people “before leisure and pleasure”.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills said that after years of living beyond its means, the council had more than met its obligations in providing non-statutory leisure activities. He drew into question the whole modus operandi of Shetland Arts, which he said had chosen to spend the bulk of its £750,000 charitable trust grant on staff while hardly any of the money found its way to the actual creators of art in the isles.
But Mr Cluness said the council had backed the project in one form or another since 1996 and, while there were a number of projects on the capital programme slate, “this is the only one we can build now”. If members voted to kill off Mareel, they would “live to regret it”, he added.
The council’s spokesman for young people Bill Manson said that with so few economies of scale to be found in Shetland, it frequently had to be the public purse which stumped up cash for projects of this nature. “I believe it will never, ever be cheaper,” he said, adding that saying the project could be built “in future years” was, in his experience, a euphemism for never.
There was loud applause from supporters after Lerwick North member Caroline Miller said the decision was a matter of trust, the council having backed the project throughout until this late stage. “Are we actually going to go back on our word as a council?” she asked. “It’s going to cast significant doubts about the integrity of this council for years to come. We want new jobs, new industries … it ticks all these boxes and we can’t afford not to do this.”
Rick Nickerson agreed that reneging at the 11th hour would bring Shetlanders’ trust in the council into question and risk the SIC’s credibility with third party funding bodies. “There needs to be trust that when the council gives its commitment it will honour it,” he said. Mr Nickerson said the reason Mareel was being prioritised in the capital programme was that it is the only one of several major projects mooted by the council over the coming decade which was actually ready to go ahead now, while the council had repeatedly underspent its £20m capital budget in recent years.
North Isles member Laura Baisley had been undecided going into the meeting but said the contributions of the project’s detractors during the debate had left her feeling depressed. “There’s more to life than balance sheets,” she said. “Let’s take a risk rather than being safe and miserable.”
Frank Robertson said that after all the time, effort and money expended to date, pulling the plug now would have left an “extremely bad taste” and could have jeopardised Shetland’s chances of securing external funding for a range of future projects. “We should be supporting arts and culture just as we support leisure and recreation,” he said, prompting further applause.
After Mr Cluness’ casting vote ensured the future of the project, Mr Angus proposed that the council should agree not to provide any additional capital or revenue funding for Mareel in the future. The convener said: “I can see that you want to stop this project,” which Mr Angus retorted was a “cheap remark”.
The roll call vote was identical to the earlier poll, leaving a visibly irritated Mr Angus to address Mareel’s supporters: “If the audience wanted us to fill [this room] with our supporters they would be outnumbered by 10 to one.”
The two roll call votes went as follows: For – Laura Baisley, Jim Budge, Sandy Cluness, Addie Doull, Florence Grains, Bill Manson, Caroline Miller, Rick Nickerson and Frank Robertson. Against – Gussie Angus, Allison “Flea” Duncan, Betty Fullerton, Iris Hawkins, Robert Henderson, Gary Robinson, Josie Simpson, Jonathan Wills and Allan Wishart. Absent from the meeting were councillors Alastair Cooper, Jim Henry, Andrew Hughson and Cecil Smith.
After the meeting Mareel supporter Daniel Robertson of Lerwick said the debate had been “fantastic” and was gushing in his praise of the convener, as well as Ms Baisley. “Sandy is a champion!” said the 20-year-old, who is a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament. “He came through for all the people of Shetland. I’ve been involved in the project since the age of 10 [and] we’ve finally got there, a cultural centre for Shetland which especially the young people have wanted for so many years.”