The Chief Executive of the Piece Hall Trust has spoken out as the building made a loss of more than £850,000 in its first year after its £19m transformation.
Halifax’s historic Piece Hall is a key driver of the town’s economy and money put into it should be seen as an investment for generations to come.
It is already achieving heritage and cultural goals – and its main aim of putting Halifax, Calderdale and county on the map, said Chief Executive of the Piece Hall Trust, Nicky Chance-Thompson.
But, she said, to get the best from the multiple-award winning building carries a cost, and as a free public asset it is likely it will only ever break even.
News that the Grade I listed Piece Hall returned an £855,000 deficit in its first year of operation raised eyebrows.
Ms Chance-Thompson said: “We knew we were going to make a deficit for the first couple of years at last.
“We wanted to get Halifax on the map and we knew we would have to spend money to do that.”
In business terms the first year figures were not exceptional for a project on this scale although she understood why people thought it was a big loss.
The Piece Hall opened in August 2017 following a £19 million full refurbishment, with the council contributing £10 million towards the restoration, another £7 million coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund nationally and the balance coming from a fundraising campaign. The council is also providing some ongoing financial support.
As a free public asset it will always need some public funding to keep it that way to supplement its own income and fundraising, she said.
The aim is to combine these things to begin breaking even in a few years time but it would take time.
“That’s what it costs to get a significant cultural asset off the ground,” said Ms Chance-Thompson.
“Things of this scale are not an overnight job. Regeneration takes time – Covent Garden took ten years to get on its feet.
“The main thing to understand is it isn’t a cash cow in its own right. The aim is to boost the Calderdale brand.”
She said it would not be right to judge it as if the charitable trust was a blue chip company and when compared to other buildings of cultural and heritage importance which were used as main attractions to bring people in to spend and benefit the economy, it was offering good value.
The Piece Hall Trust’s first annual report and accounts show the Piece Hall, which opens seven days a week, costing £5,000 per day to run.
But this compares with the Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield, which costs around £9,500 a day to run and £23,000 a day to run York Minster, she said.
Calderdale Council’s Chief Executive, Robin Tuddenham, said that to put that into context only York Minster could rival the Piece Hall in terms of significance and at a fifth of the cost.
“It’s more than a jewel in Calderdale’s crown, it’s a jewel in the crown for Yorkshire.”
Tourism was an important and growing part of Calderdale’s economy, worth around £344 million last year and employing well over 7,500 people across all sectors.
Both Ms Chance-Thompson and Mr Tuddenham said the Piece Hall was already having an effect on Halifax’s economy, whether that was extra footfall making its way to businesses in neighbouring Woolshops – footfall up 14 per cent since the Piece Hall opened – and Westgate, or helping anchor or attract big businesses bringing employment to the borough, such as Lloyd’s in the heart of the town and Covea providing jobs at the dynamic Dean Clough complex.
Other heritage venues like Halifax Minster and Halifax Town Hall were seeing additional footfall. The aim is for the Piece Hall’s appeal to bring more visitors up through the town and across wider Calderdale.
The Piece Hall had pulled in big events in what was its first year, including the BBC basing an episode of Antiques Roadshow there, being chosen as a Tour De Yorkshire starting point and top concerts by name acts – upcoming shows include Elbow and Embrace.
These could be expensive to host with stage, lighting and technician costs but it was notable the Piece Hall was attracting them here – managements have to be convinced it is a good venue for their artists to appear at.
Events like last summer’s Chow Down food and drink festival had been astonishingly successful, attracting 30,000 visitors in just one weekend.
Diversity of events was crucial, being unafraid to try something new and always with an eye on bringing people back to Halifax and Calderdale, culturally connecting tourism across the borough.
“The names we have brought in during the time frame is phenomenal.
“Now we understand the building more and what works and what doesn’t, it’s about being agile, saying that works, that doesn’t, there will be more of that, less of that, said Ms Chance-Thompson.
“I want the best for it – but when you want to best for something it doesn’t come cheap,” she said.
Keeping the Piece Hall free for the public to use was of value in itself but meant one type of income – an entry fee – could not be used to help cover costs.
However, the trust is confident that as an important cultural asset it will be able to secure funds from other sources.
“It is an important asset we believe will generate traction for funding,” said Ms Chance-Thompson.
Mr Tuddenham said developing the Piece Hall ran alongside other regeneration proposals for which ranged from investment in transport infrastructure to the new Sixth Form Centre at Northgate in Halifax.
Ms Chance-Thompson said although the first year deficit was around £150,000 more than anticipated, there were reasons for that.
The Piece Hall only opened half way through the year and one significant extra cost could not have been foreseen – following the bombing tragedy at Manchester Arena, security costs for the building and the events held there increased.
“It meant spending a lot more on security to keep people safe, putting a lot more people on the ground.
“With three million visitors we have to have security,” she said.
It pushed wages and salary costs over the £900,000 mark but this is down to the numbers needed.
There are minimum staffing requirements for a building like the Piece Hall in terms of security, cleaning and so on, with employees on salary levels that were comparable with those within the Leeds City Region (this includes Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield and Kirklees as well as Calderdale).
Mr Tuddenham said two senior Calderdale councillors – Coun Stephen Baines (Con, Northowram and Shelf) and Coun Tim Swift (Lab, Town) – were on the trust board and the local authority were very much involved in overseeing the way the trust had worked, with Chief Finance Officer Nigel Broadbent forensically going through the figures.
Developing Halifax, of which the Piece Hall was a key component, and the other market towns across Calderdale posed challenges he was confident would be met by cross-party action.
When the Brexit issue had been clarified, Government was looking to boost town centres through measures including the Future High Street Fund and, through the region, business rate receipts.
The Piece Hall would benefit from that, said Mr Tuddenham: “Funding doesn’t just come from the council.
“We will be looking for the council, city region and Government to see how we can make it sustainable.”