Bid for new events arena at Princes Street Gardens

Simple Minds perform on the Ross Bandstand at Hogmanay. Picture: Toby Williams
Simple Minds perform on the Ross Bandstand at Hogmanay. Picture: Toby Williams
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AN ICONIC new concert and events arena would be built in Princes Street Gardens under plans put forward to the city council by a leading businessman.

Norman Springford, founder of the Apex Hotels group and a former owner of the Edinburgh Playhouse, is offering to plough several million pounds of his own money into a replacement for the crumbling Ross Theatre.

The award-winning developer said he would be happy to pay for an international design competition to come up with designs for a building he hopes will become as iconic a symbol as the Sydney Opera House or Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum.

The 70-year-old has offered to help put together a task force of industry experts to set up a charitable trust to pursue a new building, which would be used throughout the year.

Mr Springford, who met senior officials earlier this month, has produced a glossy brochure outlining his proposals. His vision, sent to council chief executive Sue Bruce, envisages a new arena with an overall capacity of 5000 but which could also be adapted to host smaller events.

Mr Springford admits the project could cost as much as £30 million, but has suggested financial backing could come from some of Edinburgh’s biggest corporate firms, philanthropic trusts and public funders including the Scottish Government, Creative Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mr Springford said: “I was born and bred in Edinburgh. I’ve known the Ross Bandstand all of my life. I’ve wanted to see it developed for around the last 20 years. Every time its condition is raised my interest has been piqued. It’s only now that I believe there is something deliverable and there seems to be a bit of enthusiasm about it within the council.

“This proposal is about improving the visitor experience of Edinburgh, as well as having a decent venue that puts the city back on the cultural map. It’s not about a white elephant that’s used once or twice a year.”

Although the new facility is expected to help bring events to Edinburgh for the first time, it would need the council to agree in principle for much greater use of the Gardens for commercial purposes than it allows at present.

His eight-page blueprint states: “One of the key objectives is to ensure that the replacement facility is extensively used, so it becomes an attraction in its own right. Smaller and local events would certainly be required to meet that objective, ideally operating every day of the year.

“The facility will become the catalyst that showcases a number of major events, including the Edinburgh International Festival fireworks, Hogmanay and the Fringe. Existing uses are easily identified, but it also needs to act as the draw to allow the city to win bids for other major sporting and cultural events.”

The local authority was forced to shelve much-publicised plans for a replacement bandstand six years ago due to funding problems, despite drawing up a detailed design. And the council pledged action in the wake of the cancellation of the Hogmanay celebrations in 2013-14, after part of a temporary arena was ripped off by high winds.

The condition of the existing venue, which dates back to 1935, is said to have declined badly over the last decade.

Mr Springford, whose family business was recently valued at £152 million in the Sunday Times Rich List, has gone public with his own bid to kickstart action after reading that one of Scotland’s leading concert promoters was urging action over the bandstand, which he compared to “a bombed-out shelter.”

Mark Mackie, managing director of Regular Music, suggested the council should hand over responsibility for the project to an outside trust if it could not afford to carry out a revamp itself.

That is the model which has been proposed to the council in the dossier, which sets out a possible timetable which could see the new arena up and 
running by the end of 2017. However, there are a number of major obstacles, not least legislation preventing any new buildings being created in the Gardens.

The National Galleries is having to seek special permission from the Scottish Parliament for a second time to carry out a redevelopment of its site on the The Mound, as it will encroach on to the east gardens.

A bold new design for a concert arena is almost certain to come under intense scrutiny from heritage bodies, who campaigned against previous plans for an underground shopping centre in the Gardens.

The blueprint also states: “An iconic building needs to be delivered to make a statement that Edinburgh not only has a historic and traditional image, but is also a modern and vibrant city. Clearly the protection of the Gardens is a key element in any proposals. Visitors to Scotland do not come for the weather and the design of the building should be such that it protects the main auditorium from inclement weather.

“The procurement of the design becomes an important issue. An international competition could fulfil the architectural role, or a beauty parade of leading architects may be an acceptable solution to identify a suitable firm.”

A council spokeswoman said: “We are open and keen to work with all partners for the benefit of the city and discussions like this are to be warmly welcomed. Norman Springford has led an esteemed career developing venues in Edinburgh and the tourism industry. We look forward to discussing these suggestions with him in more depth to consider the feasibility of his ideas.”

From pub tycoon to top hotelier

NORMAN Springford started out working for the Inland Revenue, before becoming a self-employed accountant in 1970s, staying in practice until 1991, and gaining extensive experience in business start-ups.

He developed a number of his own enterprises in the hospitality and catering industry after buying his first pub in 1971 and had a 25-strong portfolio, which also included a bingo hall and a sport club, by the time he sold it off in 1997.

For a period in the mid-1980s Springford also ran the Edinburgh Playhouse, which at the time was Britain’s biggest theatre, before it was sold to entertainment giants Apollo Leisure.

However in the mid-1990s he turned his attention to the hotel sector and after buying a derelict Heriot-Watt University building in the Grassmarket spent ten months turning it into the city’s first budget-style hotel.

Springford’s Apex group went on to open three other hotels in Edinburgh, one in Dundee and three in London. Ithas continued to flourish and the group’s first hotel in Glasgow is due to open this summer.

Springford was named Scottish Hotelier of the year in 2006 and was honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Hospitality Industry Trust in 2012, the same year he was given an honorary doctorate from Queen Margaret University.

The arena at the heart of a historic park

The Ross Theatre is one of the best-known and historic landmarks in West Princes Street Gardens, which were created in the 1820s, following the draining of a loch which had been built in the mid-15th century to strengthen the defences of Edinburgh Castle.

The park was originally for the exclusive use of the proprietors of Princes Street, who raised £7000 for their construction, unless you were prepared to pay as much as four guineas a year for a key.

The first public opening came in 1851 at the request of the Scottish Society for Suppressing Drunkeness, whose members believed the Gardens would tempt people away from the pub at Christmas and New Year.

The Gardens were eventually opened to the public in 1876 and have been in the care of councillors ever since. The following year a bandstand was built as a gift to the city by whisky tycoon William Henry Ross. The original bandstand was replaced by a new building and a terraced area in 1935, both of which remain in place.

The Ross Theatre has had a central role in many of Edinburgh’s flagship festivals and events, including the annual fireworks concert, which has been running for more than 30 years, and the Jazz Festival’s annual free event, which is the biggest concert of its type in the UK.

A huge stage is installed in front of the bandstand for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, which have been headlined by Calvin Harris, Madness, Scissor Sisters, Biffy Clyro and Simple Minds in recent years.

Orbital, Nick Cave, BB King, Tony Bennett, Franz Ferdinand, Bryan Ferry, Steve Earle, Joan Baez and Belle & Sebastian have also staged live concerts in the arena in the summer.