At a meeting of the town council on Monday, October 28, and with the public gallery full to overflowing, the principal item on the agenda was the future of the Heritage Centre, which, of course, includes the town model and, upstairs. the wonderful “penny arcade” with its vintage slot machines that always used to be an attraction on many a seaside pier.
The heart of the problem is finance. With cutbacks over recent years resulting in the withdrawal of the Rother District Council subsidy, increases in rates and a drop-off of visitors – particularly overseas school parties – partly as a result of the interminable Brexit problem, the cost to Rye Town Council has risen to a figure in excess of £22,000 a year. The result of this has been to reduce funds available in other areas, and this is unsustainable.
It should be acknowledged that determined efforts have been made by the manager and staff at the centre who have worked hard to keep costs down and increase turnover and this may well have helped prevent an even larger subsidy being required.
There was much discussion and concern from the public gallery, and although a potential new home (in Hastings) may have been found for the penny arcade machines, there was a lot of concern expressed both by the effect the closure of the centre would have on neighbouring business who benefit from the footfall, and, in particular, on the future of the town model. The idea of it being dismantled, boxed up and maybe never seen again was clearly an anathema to almost everyone.
On behalf of the council, the mayor promised that all the comments received would be taken into consideration and every effort would be made to find a solution.
The following statement was issued by the town council on Wednesday, October 30:
The future of the Rye Heritage Centre
“At a meeting held on 28 October, Rye Town Council decided that it could no longer delay taking action to address the substantial public subsidy required to support the Heritage Centre, home of the Town Model Sound & Light Show, a visitor information service, audio tours and Old Pier Amusement Machines.
“Since the loss of visitor information funding from Rother District Council 10 years ago, the Town Council has struggled to run the Centre without placing an excessive burden on Rye Council Tax payers.
“Despite reducing expenditure, re-merchandising and changing the retail offer in order to support local producers, the Centre has continued to be impacted adversely by factors outside of its control. Visitor numbers are affected not only by the weather but also postponed Brexit deadlines, which have resulted in a significant number of overseas students group booking cancellations this year. Additionally, the £12,500 a year business rates payable on the premises has not been helpful.
“The level of subsidy required has continued to rise. Over the last three years it has averaged £22,000pa and, without urgent action, is forecast to reach a similar figure this year.
“At the Council meeting, members of the public voiced their concerns about the possibility of visitors and residents no longer having access to the Town Model, a much-loved visitor attraction for some 40 years, as well as the impact of a closure of the Centre on neighbouring businesses.
“Those present were advised that the Council had explored alternative locations for the Model and different governance structures for the Centre, without success. The need to subsidise the Centre at £22,000pa had depleted the Council’s reserves, which resulted in the suspension of grant giving to community organisations, an asset disposal and two vacant posts being left unfilled.
“Members of the public were assured that their comments would be considered before the Town Council made a final decision on the future of the Centre and were advised that the Council’s priority is to ensure the continued provision of a face-to-face visitor information service in the town.
“After careful consideration, the Council reluctantly concluded that, to protect the interests of local Council Tax payers and the Council’s other services, as from April 2020 the visitor information service should be relocated to the Town Hall, the Centre should be let and the Town Model should, if necessary, be placed into storage.
“However, should any members of the community express a desire to work up a proposal to keep the Model at the Centre, the Council would be happy to provide support and guidance. Because a local charity has expressed interest in renting the Centre for another purpose, any such proposal would need to be agreed with the Council no later than December 31.
“Additionally, the Council welcomes any suggestions for alternative locations for the Model, probably as a static exhibit.”
Richard Farhall, Rye Town Clerk
Since the town council meeting, a few interested parties have come together and will be holding a further meeting to discuss the future of the Heritage Centre and the town model. They have issued the following statement:
“There will be a meeting at Rye Heritage Centre on Monday, November 4 at 6:30pm. The purpose of the meeting is for interested parties who have any skills or knowledge or experience and time and for those who have an interest in the future of the town model to come together and try to find a way forward. It is likely this will require the formation of some type of charity so anyone with experience in that field will be welcome.
“Please bear in mind that this is not a meeting to discuss past mistakes or express anger at the council’s decision, it is an opportunity to make a real contribution to our town.”
Image Credits: Rye News library , Rye Town Council .