New Festival venue to sprout from gardens to halt exodus

St Andrew Square

St Andrew Square

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The gardens of St Andrew Square would be turned into a major new festival hub under new proposals being considered to halt the “drift” of the Fringe to the Southside.

New research indicates that spending in the city centre’s shops declined during this year’s festivals.

That is largely attributed to the closure of the Assembly Rooms in George Street, which is currently being refurbished and will reopen with less performance space in time for next year’s festivals.

Now Essential Edinburgh, the group that represents all businesses between Princes Street and Queen Street that pay a levy to provide its funding, is looking at expanding the number of venues.

As well as the reopening of the Assembly Rooms – which will be operated as a Festival venue by Stand Comedy Club promoter Tommy Sheppard from next summer – it is hoped that owners of unused buildings will be willing to let their space be used for Festival performances.

St Andrew Square, which is managed by Essential Edinburgh, is seen as one of the frontrunners to become a new outdoor venue.

Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said: “For next year, we have to be thinking about this now and looking at what our options are.

“It does not have to just be a standard type of venue and there are some fantastic buildings not being used in the city centre, while we could also look at empty shops and marquees in St Andrew Square are a definite option.

“The idea is that we will be looking round to see what we can do and will then get in touch with co-ordinators at the festivals.”

Latest research indicates that six per cent of all spending by Festival-goers is spent in the city’s shops, and that makes the Festival worth £14.7 million for retailers.

But overall city centre footfall was down 7.2 per cent during this year’s event, with George Street slumping 34 per cent. Initial findings of a council poll of retailers also indicate that visitor spending was down.

Mr Neal believes that a new venue in St Andrew Square, together with the reopening of the Assembly Rooms, could reverse the decline seen since the decision of most of the main operators to move towards the Bristo Square area.

He said: “Certainly St Andrew Square is something we want to consider because it is a prime venue and we also have the rights for it.

“Clearly, we don’t have the expertise to put on a Festival programme so we would need a partner for it, but it’s a possibility.

“My ideal is that the reopening of the Assembly Rooms is the lead, but that we also have two or three other things going on in the BID [business improvement district] area so that once we have people down there, we can move them around and keep them in the city centre.”

Assembly Theatre, which previously operated the Assembly Rooms prior to its closure this year, created a major Festival hub in Princes Street Gardens in 2010 but did not repeat the move this year after failing to attract a sponsor.

It moved to George Square Gardens this year but has not yet announced its plans for 2012.

Councillor Tom Buchanan, the city’s economic development leader, said: “The Assembly Rooms is a key driver of footfall in the New Town area during the Festival Fringe, so it wasn’t surprising that with its ongoing refurbishment retail figures have been affected.

“I fully expect to see positive figures when it reopens next summer, especially with the arrival of Jamie Oliver’s restaurant and the two retail units facing George Street.”

mblackley@edinburghnews.com