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'Save Dudley Hippodrome': Campaigners in final plea ahead of crunch meeting

By Andrew Turton | Dudley | Dudley entertainment | Published:

'Save our Hippodrome' - That's the defiant message from Dudley Hippodrome campaigners ahead of a crunch debate tonight.

Protesters campaigning to save Dudley Hippodrome, including comedian Marlene 'The Black Country Wench', outside the historic theatre

It is D-Day for Dudley Hippodrome with leading councillors holding a meeting tonight with the theatre's future on the line.

Senior council officers have recommended plans to reopen the theatre as a performance venue to be dropped in favour of building a high-tech driverless cars testing site.

Dudley Council's cabinet will discuss the recommendations tonight - and they could seal the fate of the boarded up venue after a decade-long fight for its future.

Dudley Hippodrome campaigner Mac Scott today said: "Please save our Hippodrome. We want the councillors to look at this with some vision, not just a council report.

"Dudley Hippodrome is part of Dudley's heritage and it deserves a future."

How the fight for the Hippodrome has been fought

It started as a the romantic vision to bring Dudley Hippodrome back to its former glory.

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The venue has been operated as a Gala Bingo Hall until it closed in 2009.

Dudley Council took over the site and, after it had stood empty for some while with little interest from potential buyers, the then-council leader Les Jones revealed plans to knock the venue down.

The Hippodrome as Gala Bingo shortly before the bingo hall closed in 2009

Malcolm Palmer, chairman of the local George Formby Society, started collecting a petition against the demolition plans in honour of the star who famous performed there.

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Later he was joined by Geoff Fitzpatrick and together they collected thousands of signatures on a petition calling for the venue to be revived.

The campaigners created a business plan to take over the site by the end of 2012.

Dudley Council was also looking into plans to create a temporary car park on the land.

Malcolm Palmer and Geoff Fitzpatrick were allowed inside to see the closed venue in 2012

Council officials dismissed the business plan following an independent assessment but entered into further talks with Mr Fitzpatrick and group members.

Gordon Downing took over as chairman of the Friends of Dudley Hippodrome group following the death of its former campaign leader Mr Fitzpatrick.

In 2014 plans also surfaced to create a £3m education and conferencing centre known as the 'Dudley Bug' - after fossils unearthed at Wren's Nest National Nature Reserve.

In October 2014, Jonathan Kendrick, co-founder of Midlands-based mobile technology firm, The ROK Group, revealed £8m plans to create a multi-purpose venue with moving stages to host a wide range of events from pop concerts to snooker competitions.

The proposals were initially welcomed by the council saying it agreed there was ‘potential for a major and very exciting’ scheme.

The Friends of Dudley Hippodrome group had submitted separate proposals for the venue by December 2014, but this was swiftly dismissed by the then-council leader Pete Lowe.

And The ROK Group proposals were dropped by April 2015 - in an apparent disagreement over the use of car parking space to the rear of the theatre.

A further deadline of September 2015 was set for the Hippodrome's future to be decided.

Six groups expressed interest in the site. But by November only one group had firmed up its interest. Businessman Gary Blick sought to bring together experts to look into its future.

Campaigners were then given until the end of 2015 to present a viable business plan.

The Hippodrome looked all set to be bulldozed when the council published plans for an open green space and square to replace the building, only for that to be put on the back-burner when a fresh approach came from a campaign group known as Black Country Hippodrome.

The public square plans were revealed for the hippodrome site

The council leaders at the time said they wanted the building removed ‘at the earliest opportunity’ despite pleas from campaigners and opposition councillors.

A new steering group was set up featuring campaigners but also new supporters and industry experts.

The group was given to the end of February 2016 to address the council’s concerns.

It then emerged any demolition plans could be delayed due to concerns about bats inside the building.

After further talks the then-Dudley Council leader, Councillor Pete Lowe, agreed to hand over the keys to the Dudley Hippodrome in late 2016.

The group was handed a five-year lease and allowed to begin minor works inside while it also looked into funding the project.

Councillor Pete Lowe handing over the keys to the Dudley Hippodrome to campaigner Dr Paul Collins in 2016

Problems began to arise when members said they would not be able to raise the £5 million needed with such a short lease.

The saga continued before Dudley Council said earlier this year that campaigners had failed to demonstrate they could raise enough money to make the rescue of the landmark viable.

Campaigners requested a 20-year extension to its current five-year lease which they say is too short to attract investment.

But by November 2017 the then council leader, Conservative Patrick Harley, said he believed 'not much progress' had been made by the campaign group.

It came as Dudley College revealed its interest in the Castle Hill site.

Campaigners behind the restoration of Dudley Hippodrome were also told to prove it will not rival Wolverhampton’s Grand Theatre before receiving crucial funding.

The group leading the project applied to the Black Country Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) for more than £100,000 to carry out a feasibility study on the building, it was revealed in May 2017.

It emerged in February 2018 that a new meeting would be held where the venues future would be on the agenda.

And the council's cabinet agreed to takeover control of the site and forfeit the lease.

Revitalised campaigners, called Dudley Hippodrome Community Group, started to campaign by April called on fresh supporters to come forward.

This month a report to the council’s cabinet recommended a proposal by the Dudley Driverless Vehicles Consortium to use the land as control centre for a high tech autonomous vehicle demonstration route.

Andrew Turton

By Andrew Turton
Digital Journalist

Digital journalist based at the Express & Star's head office in Wolverhampton. Interested in breaking news and social media. Get in touch on Twitter @aturton_star or andrew.turton@expressandstar.co.uk

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