If there’s been a turnaround in the fortunes of one Prestonian in the last 18 months it has to be Simon Rigby.Advertisement
Cast into the shadows after a failed bid to takeover Preston’s now grade II listed Bus Station the local multi-millionaire withdrew to consider his options.
Preston City Council didn’t play for his £1 bid to take the building off their hands, but the man who owns a wealth of different businesses waited and saved his cash for a bid to buy the Guild Hall.
Costing more than £1 million in taxpayers money to keep running, the grim reaper of council cutbacks was looming ever close for the venue. We will close it in March 2015 if we don’t find a buyer was the message from the city council. With £3.6 million to find in savings over the next three years this was a bleed the council was determined to stop.
Enter stage right, Mr Rigby. Returning on a white horse, weighed down with cash, the philanthropist was back and ready to do business with the council. And this time they opened their arms to the Preston lad who decided he wanted to take the Guild Hall back to what it used to be.
Speaking ahead of receiving the keys to the venue he visited so often as a child, Mr Rigby is clear on what he has done.
He said: “I’ve saved this venue from tragedy. There’s no other way of describing it if this place had closed.
“The Guild Hall is a very special venue for the city. I visited here so many times growing up and I felt it only right to ensure it is kept open for others to enjoy.”
While the transfer of the building is for an undisclosed sum, Mr Rigby states more than £1 million is already being pumped into investing in the building. And it’s not just a venue as Mr Rigby is keen to point out.
“There’s not much money in actual events these days,” he says, “you’re often paying an act a guarantee to come to Preston. They say we’ll get people to come and see us but it’s up to you to sell them everything else.
“We might be lucky to break even on something like Avenue Q. It’s been on Broadway and you don’t get shows like that for cheap. But it’s about what people do while they are here. They have a drink, have something to eat and have an experience as well as watching the show.”
Booking the likes of Avenue Q and becoming a home for the Frog and Bucket comedy nights signals a radical departure from a very conservative booking policy put in place under the city council’s austerity.
Mr Rigby says it’s going to be a transition for those booking the entertainment to suddenly find it’s a different ball game.
He said: “We’re a 2,000 capacity venue in the main hall and we’ve also got the Charter Theatre. It’s a great place to play, particularly for comedians. There aren’t many places as quality as this set up to play.
“You have to accept we won’t be pulling in the huge name acts as they want to play your Manchester Arenas to 10,000 odd people. There’s other ways of bringing those acts to the city, like playing in a park.
“Our focus is on those younger acts on the way up and also those ageing rockers on their way, or more likely coming back for the third time.”
The previous booking policy of the city council saw the venue operating at around a quarter of its capacity for booking shows, and Rigby has put down a challenge to his operational team to up this.
“We’re going to be taking some risks,” he said, “the booking is done by Richard Simpkin. He’s a young lad, he knows what people want to see. I put my trust in that team to book the right shows.
“Take Avenue Q for example. Personally I don’t know much about it but my team tell me the younger generation of Preston will want to see it. And I trust their judgement.”
As we talk in the newly opened Leaf or Bean coffee shop, and the workmen are hammering away in the former Cassandra’s restaurant to turn it into a new tapas restaurant – it’s clear major funds are being pumped in.
Rigby says: “We said we have to do something from day one. Prestonians want to see action, and they’ll have seen it.
“Look out the front. The trees have gone, new signage is up, this place is open. You can get a coffee in the Guild Hall for the first time in ten years. This is happening. Look at the tapas place coming together.”
Asked about the bigger picture of the Guild Hall building and expansion, Rigby clearly has ambitions beyond what’s currently been sold to him.
Original plans submitted to the city council included a space-age like hotel on land near the Guild Hall and Mr Rigby maintains it is needed.
“We need to get this venue right first. There’s a lot to change. It’s been in a spiral of decline,” he said, “now we have to build it back up again.
“Our terms of sale from the council do not cover the grassy knoll between here and the Bus Station but I am confident we can do something to look at creating a hotel in the future. Preston needs it and this venue needs it.
“With the variety and quality of acts we’re looking to bring to the Guild Hall then we’ll be attracting people from further afield. And they need somewhere to stay.”
A statement on Friday from the city council outlined the plan for Mr Rigby to stump up £250,000 in an arts and culture trust fund. Mr Rigby was sketchy on the details of the plan for this.
He said: “We’re still working out the full details, but I am putting up this money. One thing we and the council are keen on is a diversity of events. This money will be available to support those events which perhaps aren’t very commercially viable but are important to the culture of Preston and its arts scene.
“The fund is to be administered by a group of trustees, of which I will be one and a representative from the city council will be another. There will be further details on this in due course. One thing we won’t do is expend all that money straight away, we may just use the interest from the fund to begin with.”
All of the staff previously employed by the city council have been maintained and transferred across to Mr Rigby’s employment, and adapting to the way he and his team do things.
“It’s a big transition,” he says, “as I’ve said the Guild Hall has been in decline and this meant there were ways of doing things.
“We’ve come in and it’s a big change. We’re booking acts, we’re doing things and there’s an increase in the tempo. Perhaps previously things took a bit longer, but now we don’t have those blockers in place. The speed you need to move at in this industry is important, something we understand coming from the hospitality and events industry.”
Operating the venue on a day to day basis will be Richard Simpkin, in his early 30s, who Mr Rigby is placing his trust in to pull the Guild Hall out of the doldrums.
Simpkin says he dreams of bringing the likes of Kasabian to the venue but knows they need to start off by booking smaller and more quality acts.
He said: “It is a big expansion at the moment and finding our way. I am having conversations with so many people.
“We want to have a really active events calendar. It’s important to the city and to us for our plans.
“Our target is an 80 per cent booking rate in terms of events going on.
“To do this we’ll obviously need more staff. You can expect to see expansion and we reckon we need to double the workforce to get the Guild Hall back to the way it was.”
Mr Rigby and his cohorts now have the keys to the Guild Hall, what remains is to see whether he can unlock its potential to bring more events to the city and rebuild a venue which has suffered a reputation failure in the last decade.
What do you think of Mr Rigby’s plans? Let us know in the comments below