Following several months of discussion with officers at Westmorland and Furness Council, social enterprise Ulverston Community Enterprises (UCE) and its subsidiary charity Ulverston Coronation Hall (UCH) have made the difficult decision to pass responsibility for the day-to-day operation of The Coro back over to the local authority at the end of the year. This will bring their near eight-year tenure of the building to an end, with proposals that Westmorland and Furness Council operate the building from 1 January 2024 due to be discussed at a meeting of the council’s Cabinet on 14 November.
UCE/UCH has operated The Coro since 2016, under a lease management agreement with the previous authority, South Lakeland District Council (SLDC).
UCE was formed in 2014 in response to a review of assets by SLDC that considered the futures of both Ulverston Town Hall and The Coro.
After a long period of negotiation and consultation with the wider community it was agreed that SLDC and UCE would trial the concept of ‘community ownership’ on a five-year lease term, during which UCE took on day-to-day management of The Coro with a support grant from SLDC for the first five years. It also took on the management of Ulverston’s Markets on behalf of SLDC to support ambitions to increase footfall in Ulverston, attract more visitors and tourists, ‘reimagine’ The Coro, revitalise the markets and engage and involve the local community to develop new ideas and projects.
UCE immediately set up a charitable incorporated organisation (UCH) to facilitate fundraising for The Coro and it was the intention and hope that over the five-year period the charity could develop a sustainable mixed-funding model that did not rely on ongoing local government funding.
Over the course of the following years UCE/UCH developed an engaging and exciting programme of quality events and activities with a mission to ‘enrich lives through great experiences’. They welcomed an estimated 300,000 people through The Coro doors for everything from professional theatrical, comedy and music shows and local am-dram performances to community coffee mornings and kids’ crafting sessions, while engaging with a further 70,000 people through free outdoor public art installations and, when safe to do so, socially distanced large-scale exhibits during the years disrupted by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes UCE/UCH successfully attracted experienced professionals from the arts and culture sector to Ulverston; cultivated and expanded the vibrant volunteer network; increased revenue by taking bar operations in-house and improving the offer; began to see success fundraising through local trusts and foundations, companies, and philanthropic individuals; and developed an exciting plan for future capital development of the building.
However, with the unprecedented upheaval and financial impact of the pandemic – including loss of key staff and systems – followed by drastically rising costs and inflation, changes in audience and hirer behaviour, recruitment difficulties, and a tough landscape for arts and culture funding, UCE found itself faced with an uncertain future. This, combined with the emergence of the new unitary authority and owners of the building – Westmorland and Furness Council – as a potentially committed and viable operator prompted the decision to enter into discussions in April 2023.
Beth Kennedy, director of UCH, said: ‘This was an enormously difficult decision. We had an ambitious vision to develop The Coro into a regional leader for arts and culture which, sadly, we are not going to be able to see through. However, we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved in our time and to have successfully guided The Coro through some of the most difficult events and hostile financial conditions for entertainment venues in recent history.
‘UCE was born out of a community-driven campaign to ‘Save The Coro’. That has informed our decision-making throughout our tenure of the building, including following the pandemic. While our operation and finances had been utterly decimated and re-opening in any viable way provided a renewed challenge of monumental scale, we’ve always placed the community needs and love for this building first. Therefore we did re-open and have worked tirelessly to restore the cultural and community offer in The Coro and re-establish a more stable financial position. But in reality, we never truly recovered from the impact of those two years.
‘However, we have managed to survive to a point where we have an opportunity to hand back management to a new local authority, with greater resources, that understands and appreciates the role of The Coro as a valued community hub. Westmorland and Furness Council now has the potential to offer The Coro far greater certainty and security for the long-term future than UCH – and so in the spirit of ‘Save The Coro’, this is the right decision to take.’
A meeting of Westmorland and Furness Council’s Cabinet on 14 November will be asked to confirm that from 1 January 2024 the management and operation of The Coro will revert to the council and that the council will continue to operate it as a cultural and community venue, initially until March 2025.
This will allow the council time to prepare an options appraisal and business case setting out proposed long-term options for the operation and management of the venue.
The Cabinet will also be asked to agree that the current temporary pop-up library offer will continue to be provided from The Coro and Ulverston Market Hall, whilst options for reinstating the permanent library offer in Ulverston are developed and consulted on, and to agree a budget for The Coro’s running costs up to March 2025.
Councillor Virginia Taylor, Westmorland and Furness Council’s Cabinet Member for Sustainable Communities and Localities, said: ‘We would like to place on record our immense thanks to the dedicated staff, board members and volunteers of both UCE and UCH who have worked tirelessly since 2016 to operate The Coro and provide the town with a vibrant cultural offering, and a venue for many community groups and events. They have overcome many challenges during this time, in particular during the COVID 19 pandemic.
‘Subject to a decision by Cabinet on 14 November, the short to medium-term future of The Coro as a cultural venue will be secured and long-term options post-March 2025 would be subject to appraisal and a full business case.
‘Although we recognise a change in management may cause some uncertainty, we can reassure the community that we absolutely recognise the importance of The Coro to Ulverston and our ambitions would be to maintain, protect and enhance its role as a vital arts, cultural and community venue.‘
Work is now ongoing to fully investigate and understand the emerging opportunities that could result in having The Coro back under local authority control.
In the meantime, all public and private events booked in up until the end of 2023 will be going ahead as planned, and anyone with an event pencilled in for 2024 will be contacted over the coming weeks.
The link to the Westmorland and Furness Council’s Cabinet report can be found at: https://westmorlandandfurness.moderngov.co.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=223&MId=266