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INTERVIEW: Winter Gardens chair aims for venue to become "biggest between Preston and Cumbria"

Professor Vanessa Toulmin showing the future King Charles around the theatre during the summer. Image by BeanPhoto.

The chair of the Winter Gardens hopes a £3m bid for government cash will be a 'game-changer' for plans to reopen the historic theatre as a full-time concert venue.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin told Beyond Radio that the bid could kickstart a "huge amount of work on the building" if successful.

Professor Toulmin and the Winter Gardens team aim to increase the theatre capacity, first to 1200, then to 1600, enabling the venue to attract big-name live music acts.

Then, she said, the Winter Gardens would be the "biggest venue between Preston and Cumbria".

Professor Toulmin said that a positive decision on the Levelling Up bid, due next year, would lead to "a massive change, the biggest in the Winter Gardens since the 50s".

"We hope it will be a gamechanger for the Winter Gardens," she said.

Professor Vanessa is the chair of the Winter Gardens Preservation Trust, owners of the 125-year-old Grade II* listed building on Marine Road. She was born in Morecambe into a travelling show family who worked on the Winter Gardens fairground. She is also the Director of City and Culture at the University of Sheffield.

She was speaking to Beyond Radio after what she called the most successful year for the theatre since she became chair a few years ago.

In summer 2022, the Winter Gardens welcomed a visit from the-then Prince Charles, just months before he became King (see below).

The theatre also celebrated its 125th birthday this year, and over the past few weeks, has been home to the stunning installation of the planet Mars by world-renowned artist Luke Jerram.

The Winter Gardens closed in 1977 but thanks to the efforts of volunteers over several decades, has undergone a period of gradual regeneration. For more than a decade, the building has reopened most years for a programme of events, and for visitor tours.

In PART 1 of the interview, Vanessa talks about the Winter Gardens' year, Luke Jerram's Mars, and a 'game-changing' bid for £3m of government money

IN PART 2 of the interview, Vanessa talks about the Theatres at Risk Register, upcoming events at the Winter Gardens, and hopes for the theatre's future as a concert venue

"It's been our most successful year since I became chair. It's been quite remarkable," said Professor Toulmin.

"All the volunteers have been absolutely remarkable.

"There has been 14,500 volunteer hours this year. That demonstrates the commitment of the volunteers that come from Morecambe, Lancaster and the surrounding areas. 

"Visitor numbers from May until the end of October were 33,000, double last year.

"People comment on how warm it is, it's probably killing me putting the heating on, but I want to demonstrate the theatre as a warm, inviting place for people to come to.

"There were more than 8,000 paying people coming for events (this year), not including for Luke Jerram's Mars.

"I was delighted (Morecambe Town Council) were bringing Luke Jerram's Mars. He's a genius, a fantastic artist, he really knows how to bring people in.

"I think this weekend will be the busiest weekend. I think it's wonderful for the people of Morecambe to be able to see things in their own town."

Related Story - PHOTOS and VIDEO: First images revealed of Mars inside Morecambe Winter Gardens - Beyond Radio

Professor Toulmin said that putting together a grant application for more than £3m to the government was "probably the hardest piece of work I've ever had to do".

The Winter Gardens has been shortlisted in the government's Cultural Development Fund, part of its Levelling Up programme. They expect a decision on their bid in 2023.

Professor Vanessa said that if the Winter Gardens' bid is successful, the Trust will use the money to extend the capacity of venue downstairs, make it carbon neutral, stop the draughts in the building, adapt the stage for use in a full music venue, and build an extension for proper toilets.

Their bid has been made to a different pot of money to the government's Levelling Up Round 2 grants. The Eden Project North team are waiting on a decision on their bid to Levelling Up Round 2, to help bring a major eco-visitor attraction to Morecambe. This decision is due by the end of this year.

Professor Toulmin said the Winter Gardens had partnered with Kendal Calling music festival, More Music and Lancaster and Morecambe College on their bid.

It is hoped that college students will have the opportunity to work on events and regeneration at the theatre in future through a new scheme.

She also spoke about the Winter Gardens recently appearing on the 2022 Theatres at Risk Register.

The register highlights buildings of national importance which are at risk.

"The Winter Gardens has been on this register since 2006, it has never moved from the register," said Professor Toulmin.

"Lots of buildings at risk can be council buildings, private ownership, or charitable ones.

"They gave us a really good progress report.

"The building is not on 'red alert'. The building is saved. The building has had £1.4m direct money spent on it. The ceiling has had £680,000 spent on it. The heating alone was £200,000. Bringing back the chairs was £20,000. That beautiful box we've had done was £80,000. 

"We are seen as a model of volunteer-led regeneration."

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