Spring follows Winter

By Richard Wright

Friday, May 30, 2014

 

Spring follows Winter

The customers start to return to Ventnor Winter Gardens as the doors reopen following the first stages of its rebirth.

WIGHT LIVING

THE opening, days ago, has not quite brought to an end three winters of Ventnor discontent — but it is going a fair bit of the way.

Not all the critics have been silenced but there is palpable relief a building, which sets a tone to a town, no longer looks a sight.

The Winter Gardens closed more than three years ago, amid realisation the town council could not afford to spend £600,000 on essential repairs and refurbishment.

It was a millstone its owner, the IW Council, didn’t want hanging around its neck and sought bids for the building.

But, since it plumped for the Hambrough Group and its grand plan, a negative body of opinion started to build.

It came to a head when the group announced postponement of its grand design to bolt on a 35-bed hotel and luxury facilities to the iconic core of the building.

The Winter Gardens languished, vandals broke in and water cascaded through its roof. Artistically decorated hoardings did little to silence the clamour.

The cold and increasingly wet building became a sore and was held up as an example of the IW Council getting it wrong in passing the building on for a peppercorn £1.

In February this year, while contractors were battling to make the building weathertight and IW College students were helping to clear it out and make ready for the vast amount of work now needed, a powerful group of businesspeople entered the fray.

They included Ventnor estate agent Larry Allen. He is not one to be silenced by the Winter Gardens’ new spic and span image.

"Only what we did got this moving after it had been an eyesore for so long — and we have not got what we were promised at all. All we have is the status quo," he said.

Larry wants the IW Council, when it reviews in July what has been done, to exercise the clause in the lease that enables it to take back the building if promised work is not "substantially complete".

The man in the IW Council hot seat is portfolio holder for resources Cllr Jon Gilbey, who has been touring the building to review progress before making up his mind.

Inside, the team of 14 students has packed up and returned to the IW College after gaining practical workplace skills in what was seen as a productive partnership deal.

Omar Lakhssassi, whose college job is liaising with employers, said the practical experience had been valuable for students looking for work or apprenticeships.

Among the first group of customers in the re-opened bar was Labour’s IW parliamentary candidate, Stewart Blackmore, who is managing director of Ventnor Golf Club.

He ran the Winter Gardens’ catering franchise 30 years ago.

He said: "I see the Winter Gardens’ re-opening as a sign Ventnor is very much on the up — hats off to them."

As he said that, the team of GBM Construction contractors, who battled against extreme winter weather to dry out the auditorium, were continuing to work hard on the building.

They are led by 39-year-old Glenn Millmore.

The work has been funded by Kevin Sussmilch and his business partner from the Hambrough Group. It has, as its flagship, the Hambrough Hotel, a stone’s throw away.

And at the sharp end has been the Winter Gardens’ 32-year-old new manager, Ian Bennett, who has project managed work running into many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

He came to the Hambrough Group only in December, from Hermitage Country House, on St Catherine’s Down.

For a chap not even keen on DIY, the fact that phases of the project are being completed on time is remarkable.

The bar and restaurant were opened a couple of weeks ago, in what was described as a "soft launch". It was felt to be more important to get them open while the sun shone, instead of waiting for everything to be finished.

What you see at the Winter Gardens is not what you will get at the end of the project, Ian emphasises.

Monumental work is being carried out on the auditorium and the first floor, where the sun terrace, with its panoramic views, will be brought back into use after many years.

Talks have already been held with the theatre group and there are hopes productions and panto will return, with use by all manner of community groups.

The auditorium will seat 300 and for music events it will be licensed for 750 people, more than double the total of recent years.

Plays, concerts, afternoon tea dances, cinema, cabaret evenings, conferences and community events — including playing a part in Ventnor Fringe — are all on the menu.

Ian is keen the Winter Gardens should be at the hub of the community; that something will be bubbling along all the time and that it should provide up to 20 full and part-time jobs.

"Like any old building, it has been a case of two steps forward and one step back but we have had to put right many years of neglect.

"No-one has kept up with the decay," he said.

"The auditorium was completely flooded when we started — we had 40 de-humidifiers running around the clock to dry it out.

"It was frustrating to get the criticism we did, that people were saying nothing was happening, when we knew a lot was going on, but I think when people come in through the doors they will realise and be part of what we are doing.

"We are already starting to win people over."

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