New arts centre planned for Ringwood
WHEN, in early December 2012, plans for a community arts centre in Ringwood were announced there was an immediate and enthusiastic response from individuals and groups locally and further afield. A public meeting was well attended and an exhibition of detailed proposals and plans drew many interested parties. Ninety-five per cent of audiences, visitors and people who commented on social media sites have been supportive and keen, with the vast majority of people saying that an Arts Centre is just what the town needs. The planning application was lodged before Christmas and is now being studied by New Forest District Council, with the results due in March or April.
A project team headed by Ringwood and District Community Association (Greyfriars) and Ringwood Musical and Dramatic Society (RMDS) has spent over two years looking into the feasibility of the Arts Centre, both groups with first-hand knowledge of what the town needs. Greyfriars Community Centre already caters for many classes, organisations and events within the complex of rooms and halls but there is a need for a larger, multi-functional venue with areas for clubs and groups to meet, a coffee shop plus kitchens and bars, in fact a community amenity to make Ringwood a better place for residents and visitors alike. RMDS, with an accomplished and acclaimed presence in the town for over a century, has put on shows in various venues and at present performs its major productions at Ringwood School theatre. Now there is pressure as that space is required for classroom use and a purpose-built theatre with orchestra pit, dressing rooms and fly tower would represent a new era for the Society. Julian Peckham, chairman of RMDS and member of the project group is excited about the plans but remains mindful of the financial challenge of raising £4.5 million, the estimated cost. Commenting that funds would be sought from donations, charitable trusts and grants as opposed to raising money from tax payers, Mr Peckham said that the group could draw on the expertise of financial planners familiar with such projects. Advice from surveying and construction experts would also be sought, with Ringwood architects Brennan Williams Lester designing the building, working together with the vision of creating something the town needs and can be proud of. Chairman of the project group Mike Osborne told the Stour and Avon magazine: "There is the potential to make Ringwood, not only a better place to live in but a magnet for visitors to spend another half day in the shops and eating places. Then they can have an evening being entertained in our market-town ambiance. "
The well-used but aging Activities Centre, behind Greyfriars and the library and adjacent to Blynkbonnie car park is the focus of the project, with that building replaced by a two story, multi-purpose complex. It would house a 250/280 seat theatre/cinema/concert venue with the auditorium roof designed for optimum acoustic performance and the fly tower making a local landmark. Seats could be retracted to change the auditorium into a community hall for dances, conferences and exhibitions, with bar facilities suitable for smaller meetings, lunches and dinners. There would be a north-facing room to give the best light for art clubs, plus activities spaces to provide facilities for enthusiasts of table tennis, judo and other sports. In fact, Mike Osborne says that, with the support of the community, Greyfriars Arts Centre would be able to offer spaces for: "Artists and artisan markets, ballads and ballet, cinema and conferences, drama and dinners, events and exhibitions plus all manner of functions." Knowing the varied interests of Ringwood folk, perhaps there will be a demand for Zumba dancing! Outside, new parking areas would be created; there are plans to redesign the Greyfriars garden and many new trees would enhance the area. In front of the library a pedestrianised courtyard with seating and plants is planned and, as a few car spaces would disappear, the recent purchase by Greyfriars of land close to the development would offset the loss of parking. Ringwood library, as part of the attractive new 'cultural campus' hopes that its viability would be improved in the face of funding cuts and also that plans to become a Discovery Centre come to fruition.
Greyfriars Community Centre was started in 1958 and the elegant Georgian house remains a focal point in the heart of the town. With three years of fund-raising and allowing for building time it is envisaged that the ambitious, community project would be completed in 2018. So, six decades after its creation, Greyfriars in Ringwood will boast an Arts Centre for the 21st Century.
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Report and photos by Pat Scott