When the Piece Hall, Halifax, re-opens its doors next summer, its new chief executive Sam Mason says it will be the focal point of the town and become a key tourist attraction in the north of England.
The £19 million refurbishment will see the 18th century hall transformed into shops, cafes, office and a large town square which will become the venue for large events including music, theatre and an ice rink over the winter months.
“It’s probably the most exciting job I’ve had in terms of the potential of where it could go,” says Sam, who is bringing expertise from his role as commercial director of the Science Museum and CEO of Brewery Arts, Kendal.
“It might be an overused term, but the building is unique in Britain, and around the world there aren’t many buildings that look like this,” says Sam.
“It should be a ‘must do’ visit for anyone coming to the north of England - it should be up there with York and the Lake District as somewhere you need to visit to experience the north of England.”
Sam explains that the attraction for many people to the Piece Hall will be the outdoor events that will run throughout the year, including live music, theatre and cinema.
“To have an outdoor space like this that can hold three or four thousand people is very rare.
“To have an arena level capacity in such great surroundings - the potential is colossal.
“The beauty we have here is that although you’re still going to be affected by the rain, but there’s no grass and no mud.
“It would be great to reintroduce some of the markets - big event markets where people come from all over to come for that day,” he says.
“Not many places can do that and have this scale - I think we can make it a ‘must visit’ around Christmas.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how much of an evening culture we can get,” he says.
“Obviously, if you’ve got evening events on that’s quite easy, but it’s about making it a family-orientated town centre evening offer and that’s quite hard to find these days.
“Most town centres feel like no-go areas at night if you’re not 18 to 25 - a lot of town centres feel feral in the evenings.
“We want to take a much more European approach where the natural thing is to go out in the evening with your family,” says Sam.
Although the Piece Hall has received millions of pounds in public money through English Heritage and Calderdale Council, Sam explains that the Piece Hall will be sustainable as a business through its various revenue streams from renting units to businesses, cafes and retailers, to hosting corporate events and festivals.
“It has to be a viable business. I have had many years’ experience as a commercial director, and understand how to run a profitable business,” he says.
“Initially it will need some support because there will be a setup period - my hope that within three years it will be standing alone as a very viable business.
“The trustees I’ve met are canny businessmen and they see how this can be good for Halifax as regeneration tool - I don’t think any of them are interested in something that’s going to eat up public funds to keep running.
“I really hope the people of Halifax are incredibly excited about what this will be.
“What the council have done and the investment from English Heritage is significant, and I think that shows a huge amount of confidence,” he says.
“The fact the council has set up an independent trust is a very significant step - a trust can be a lot quicker than a council to make decisions and get things done.”
He hopes to attract businesses from the creative and cultural sectors and retailers selling unique goods to take up residence in the Piece Hall.
“There is already an interest from businesses wanting to come here - clusters in unique venues generate their own interest,” says Sam.
“You find with creative industries that they want to be gathered together - you always get a lot of cross-business - businesses want to go where things are growing.”
As well as looking to the future, the project will also celebrate the Piece Hall’s rich history with a heritage centre and easy access to the new central library and archive.
“I think people will choose how they want to engage with the Piece Hall,” he says.
“Some people will want to visit it as a key historic monument - that has to be up there with the best experiences in the country.
“I don’t mind how they do it - they could come to have lunch, to experience the beautiful space, to browse the shops or come for an event.
“What I would expect is that everyone in Halifax will have a totally different experience of the Piece Hall - for some it might be where they come to see live music, for others it might be where they come with their family on a Sunday.
“If we can get ties in with Eureka, the Minster, Square Chapel, the other galleries and museums, then families can come and spend a day or even a weekend in Halifax.
“The architecture in Halifax is fantastic and it’s so well-preserved, but I think that it needs the Piece Hall as a focal point.”
The refurbishment of the Piece Hall is scheduled for completion next spring, with a grand opening planned from summer 2016.