The long-awaited opening of cinema and music venue Mareel has been pushed back to the summer due to “severe disruption” caused by the heavy snow and gales in the weeks before Christmas, Shetland Arts has revealed.
It had been hoped that the flagship building would be open to the public in late spring, but a joint statement from the arts agency and contractors DITT explained that a deadline to make Mareel wind and watertight by the end of November had not been met. The setback means the venue will not be ready in time for this summer’s Tall Ships races on 20th-24th July.
Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons said he was reluctant to commit to a precise opening date until the building is fully wind and watertight. But he hopes it will be open before the organisation’s Screenplay and Wordplay festivals, to be held on the weekend of 2nd-4th September.
He said: “It is clearly regrettable that Mareel will not now be open until the summer of 2011 and most significantly that the four-day Tall Ships event will be missed. The severe weather experienced last month was unprecedented and unfortunately came at a crucial time in the construction programme.”
Six events planned for July have been either postponed or relocated. No acts have yet been publicised but Mr Gibbons said that would follow “in due course”.
He explained the delay would be longer than the three-and-a-half weeks of severe weather because of the knock-on impact on the construction timeline. “It has knocked us into the worst time of the year to be trying to get our building wind and watertight,” he said.
DITT director John Tait said: “Snow and gales affected transport and shipping, roads on mainland Britain were snowbound affecting deliveries to ports, and ports and ship sailings were further affected by gale force winds which disrupted sailing times.
“These disruptions impacted on the foyer timbers being delivered to site on the last day of work prior to Christmas, so that no works were progressed to the front of the building. The weather also disrupted the main roofing contractors’ work due to the risks of working in icy conditions and in high winds.”
DITT and the design team have pledged to make “every effort” to recover lost time. On a tour of the building site yesterday morning, head of operations Richard Wemyss explained that after temperatures plummeted to freezing, glass panels at the entrance and in the cafe/bar had been unable to be installed.
Mr Gibbons said the delay would have no financial repercussions for the £12.2 million project, which has its fair share of detractors within the community. Rumours have been circulating in some quarters that the budget was spiralling out of control, but he said such talk was entirely without foundation.
“There’s a limited pot of money and we’re aware that the opportunity to get additional funds is very, very small,” he said. “The important thing is we’re still on budget and maintaining a two per cent contingency against remaining spend, which has been our strategy all along. We don’t have a huge contingency but we’ve been monitoring the construction costs very closely.”
Architects managed to shoehorn a 600-capacity music auditorium, two cinema screens, a cafe bar, recording studios, rehearsal rooms and education areas onto the North Ness site.
The contentious business plan – which projects sales of £400,000 a year across the counter at the cafe/bar – is also unaffected, Mr Gibbons said: “We didn’t build any large-scale significant events, like Tall Ships, into the business plan so missing that date doesn’t affect us financially.”
Shetland Charitable Trust has pledged up to £100,000 to underwrite any loss in the first year of operation, though Mr Gibbons said this week that Shetland Arts’ aspiration was “not to have to draw upon that”.
Only two months ago, Shetland Arts requested a £30,000 advance on that sum for start-up costs and to pay for marketing in advance of the opening. But it was snubbed by trustees, with some of the Mareel’s most outspoken opponents grabbing the opportunity to rail against the project.
The underwrite is the only direct contribution the charitable trust, which spends millions annually towards the running cost of seven leisure centres and Shetland Museum and Archives, has committed to Mareel. It funds Shetland Arts’ general activities to the tune of around £700,000 a year.
In the face of widespread scepticism Mr Gibbons insisted that, once established, the venue will be able to operate independently without any running loss.
Sheila Duncan was appointed as head of finance and administration in the autumn, with Mr Wemyss as head of operations. A third senior post, head of programming, is not now to be filled until the end of the year. Meantime Mr Gibbons said the organisation was “working with a number of people within the music and TV industry, and independent promoters and programmers”.
Adverts for seven more full-time jobs will be placed next month. Posts will include production manager, sound technician, front-of-house manager, bar/catering manager and a marketing post.
There are no concrete plans for a standalone opening night; instead, Shetland Arts plans to hold “a month of celebrational events”. Discussions with various artists are continuing.
It will not be possible to accommodate all of Shetland Arts’ staff into the venue so efforts are being made to find a small office to allow the organisation to downsize from the costly premises it rents within the Toll Clock Shopping Centre.