Friends bid to save theatre – but it will cost millions

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Heritage enthusiasts have banded together in a bid to breathe new life into a neglected historic Burnley theatre.

The late-Victorian Empire Theatre in Lower St James’s Street now has a dedicated “friends” group, aimed not only at saving it from demolition but also refurbishing the near-derelict listed building.

A figure close to £15-20m. would be more accurate for restoring the building

Coun. Bea Foster, Executive member for Leisure and Culture

The formation of the group follows recent calls from Burnley television actresses Alice Barry and Caroline O’Hara who would also like to see the Empire Theatre brought back into use.

Gilly Fontaine-Grist, who helped to set up the friends group, said: “Although The Friends of Burnley Empire Theatre are well aware that the building requires a lot of work, we hope to obtain funding and buy the building.

“Then, with help from any heritage/restoration grants available, restore the theatre to its former glory.”

The group is aiming to find out if there are any companies interested in supporting the rescue project.

Built in 1894, the Empire was originally run by W.C. Horner of the Victoria Opera House, Burnley.

The Grade II listed building was converted into a cinema in 1938 and a bingo hall in 1982 but closed in 1995.

It has since fallen into a dilapidated state inside and outside, and has been on the Theatre Buildings at Risk register for some years.

After much local pressure to reopen the theatre, Burnley Light Opera Society and The Theatres Trust contributed to the cost of a feasibility study.

However, the theatre remained empty and unused, and continues to deteriorate.

In 2013, Burnley Borough Council had to carry out emergency safety work on the crumbling building which was branded “dangerous” to the public because of falling masonry.

That has not stopped Burnley’s well-known thespians and theatre lovers calling for it to be saved.

Speaking to the Express last year, television star Alice Barry said: “When I saw the photo of the Empire it made me very sad. It is still a very impressive building, although sadly the Burnley public of today aren’t getting to see it.

“I think it has a lot of potential, it still looks beautiful after all these years, but obviously needs some tender loving care.

“Burnley is short of old traditional theatres so it would be wonderful if someone could breathe some life into the Empire. There is a lovely square at the back outside the theatre which would also complement it.”

The Friends of the Empire Theatre believe that if refurbished, the building could be used for a variety of purposes.

Gilly added: “We would restore the building fit for the original purpose of bringing performances within a Victorian setting, be those of a musical, theatrical, educational, social, cultural or fund-raising nature.

“The theatre could also be used for conferences and lectures, the options are vast. Burnley has only one stunning theatre, The Burnley Mechanics, that has contemporary appeal within its beautiful and old façade.

“However, the group feels that the town could welcome the re-birth of the once thriving Victorian Empire Theatre.

“Burnley could be a buzzing cultural town centre if it had the Empire’s lights shining once more in St James’s Street.”

A petition has been set up on Facebook by the Friends.

Anyone willing to offer support of any kind to the group can contact them through Mike Hargreaves on 075303 45152.

However, Burnley Borough Council poured cold water on any hopes of a renovation, saying it would cost millions of pounds.

Coun. Bea Foster, Executive member for Leisure and Culture, said: “Burnley Council is very concerned about the unsafe state of the former Burnley Empire Theatre building and the blight it places on the town centre.

“In 1998, the estimated cost of restoring the building was £8.44m. plus VAT and it is envisaged that with the further deterioration of the building due to weather and other factors, along with construction inflation, a figure probably closer to £15-20m. would be more accurate for restoring the building.

“The council currently provides revenue support to Burnley Leisure to operate a range of facilities in the borough, including Burnley Mechanics Theatre and it is the council’s view that there is only market demand for one major theatre in the town.

“This along with the council’s severe financial constraints arising from austerity mean that the council would not be in a position to provide funding to the restoration of the building or the operation of a theatre in the building.”

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