Published: 15:30, 16 November 2020
| Updated: 16:07, 16 November 2020
Thousands of people have leapt to safeguard the future of a much loved Maidstone theatre.
Members of the public, councillors and Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant are rallying to protect the Hazlitt Theatre as Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) considers the venue's future.
On Thursday, during a private session which the public could not attend, MBC's Economic Regeneration and Leisure Committee (ERL) gave the go-ahead for the council to consider removing the £240,000 subsidy it pays to Parkwood Theatres to run the venue.
However, Parkwood bosses say they could not operate the Hazlitt without this subsidy and the move could lead to the venue's closure.
The council is also considering cutting its contract with Parkwood Theatres seven-and-a-half years early and mothballing the venue, it is understood.
Alternative options are also being considered, but theatres bosses said they didn't know what they were.
The council said it had to review the way the theatre is working due to the "financial pressures" the authority is facing as a consequence of the pandemic.
The council is short of £5.1m and is looking to make cuts by 15% in its next budget, in April.
MP Helen Grant said she was "hugely worried" and the potential closure.
She said: "I’m committed to doing everything I can to protect its future. The Hazlitt is at the beating heart of Maidstone. Its contribution to our local economy is substantial and will be needed more than ever as we seek to recover from the coronavirus crisis next year.
"But this is about more than money. The Hazlitt is central to the fabric of our town. Its productions, workshops and youth theatre clubs bring joy to so many people and it is a venue which is cherished by us all. It is crucial that Maidstone, as the County Town of Kent, retains this important cultural asset.
"We must therefore do everything possible to save it from closure. I do, of course, understand the financial challenges that MBC are facing, however I am asking them to pause their decision to earmark the theatre for closure and to give us some time.
"This would allow us to explore what other funding options might be available to support the venue.
"I am already working with Parkwood Leisure, who operate the theatre, to engage with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council to consider what funding might be available to support the Hazlitt through this hugely testing period."
'I'm committed to doing everything I can to protect its future...'
Meanwhile, a cross-party group of borough councillors has demanded that the decision made last week is reviewed by the policy and resources committee, after the public outcry.
Member Cllr Jonathan Purle said: “The Hazlitt Theatre is a significant piece of Maidstone’s community. I know its been closed since March but the council should have a meaningful plan in place to reopen it when the pandemic is over. Instead, it looks like council officers just want to take the money and run.
“This decision appears to have been made at very short notice and in closed session. Most councillors seem to have been left in the dark."
“So the council should now reconsider the matter properly and in the light of how the people of Maidstone clearly feel about this.”
Other councillors demanding a review are Lottie Parfitt- Reid, Louise Brice, Ashleigh Kimmance, Michelle Hastie and Eddie Powell.
A petition calling for MBC to take the funding withdrawal option off the table has reached more than 4,500 signatories.
The petition, started by former youth club member Amy Riley, reads: "The Hazlitt's walls have nurtured young peoples voices, housed laughter and created memories for so many others.
"The Hazlitt is a space that has paramount creativity, embraced local talent and championed itself at being a pillar in the memories of so many people who grow up and live in Maidstone.
"It would be devastating for Covid to take away something so integral to our community."
A fundraising page started two months ago is now gathering momentum, with £1,190 raised.
The theatre is also running its own donation page, which reads: "We receive the large majority of our income directly from you, our customers, through ticket and food/drink sales. When we closed our doors back in March, that income disappeared overnight."
Martin Cleverly, theatre general manager said: "The question is can we operate without the current level of funding they put in, no we can't."
He said the council, which leases the building, would still be paying about £9,000 a month in rent even without the theatre running. It would also lose out on parking charges for those travelling in, once theatres were allowed to reopen and businesses would miss out as well.
"It doesn't make sense," he said.
Paul Harper, ERL committee chairman said he did not want to support cuts but "after a decade of austerity the council is short on options".
He said: "Unfortunately it has not been possible to open the theatre since March and currently there is no obvious time when it will be able to reopen with social distancing and the rule of six. "Therefore it is entirely appropriate that the council engages with discussions with Parkwood Theatres to look at the future of the Hazlitt.
"The Arts Council turned down a request from Parkwood for emergency funding to keep it ready to be able to reopen.
"I have asked our MP Helen Grant and the Parkwood management to look at securing sufficient funding for this and the next year to cover the costs of the operation of the theatre."
In October many Kent entertainment venues were given vital life support by the government, but the Hazlitt missed out.
A spokesman for MBC said: "Maidstone Borough Council’s ERL Committee has been considering future options for many council services including the Hazlitt Theatre.
"Unfortunately, despite the positive role the theatre makes for the borough, we have had to review the way it is working due to the financial pressures that the Council is facing as a consequence and impact of Covid-19.
"MBC is currently in discussions with Parkwood Theatres to look at the future of the Hazlitt."
During the same committee meeting, cuts were discussed for Maidstone Museum. Under current plans, funding will be decreased by 25%, and opening hours will "most likely be reduced by the equivalent of a day a week," Cllr Harper said.
But, he said the aim was for paid staff to work with volunteers and interns, similar to a National Trust model.