WATCH: ‘Use Customs House or risk losing it’ says boss

USE it or lose it – that’s the message from bosses at a South Tyneside theatre.

The Customs House, in South Shields, was set to close on January 30, but saved after help from Arts Council England.

The theatre, in Mill Dam, South Shields, was also given a £25,000 boost at the weekend through a star-studded fundraising event led by South Tyneside comedians Jason Cook, Chris Ramsey and Sarah Millican.

But executive director, Ray Spencer, says the venue isn’t out of the woods yet, and that if more people don’t go to the venue to see shows, films, or have something to eat, it could be lost forever.

He said: “Only 10 per cent of our turnover comes from public funds, the rest is earned by commercial activity. So what we ask is that people think about using it more, attending events, having their celebrations with us or even just popping in for Sunday lunch.”

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Custom House cuts. From left Peter Durrant and Ray Spencer.

Custom House cuts. From left Peter Durrant and Ray Spencer.

It costs £2,000 a day to run the Customs House and its sister venue, the CustomSpace, in The Captain’s Row, South Shields, but an economic study has also revealed that the theatre is worth £3.5m to South Tyneside’s economy each year. Mr Spencer, 55, added: “We had an economic study done that shows we’re worth £3.5m a year to South Tyneside’s economy. We’re not just a cost.

“The annual magic festival brings people from around the world who stay in the borough and spend money here and, when Joe McElderry performs here, people fly in from Ireland and all over the place to see him and spend money here.”

Mr Spencer took on his current role in 2000 and said the venue’s finances began to take a turn for the worse in 2010 when funding cuts and falling audience numbers started to take their toll.

He said: “In 2010, the Customs House was delivering two national projects on behalf of the Arts Council – Creative Partnerships and Find Your Talent – but in May 2010, we were asked to close those projects and make the staff working on them redundant.

“In the same year, we faced reductions in our core funding from local authority partners and the Arts Council.

“At the same time, the general economy was on a downturn. All this created a perfect storm, which meant that, by the beginning of this financial year, the Customs House had no reserves, having made losses in the previous two financial years of £55,000 and £91,000.

“We also saw a significant year-on-year reduction in audiences, particularly at the theatre, including a 15 per cent reduction in ourpantomime audiences, which meant we were projecting a large in-year deficit for our current financial year.

“Taking all of this into consideration and wanting to ensure that none of our loyal patrons, artists, employees or suppliers would face a loss if we were to close, a date was set on which we could still close and pay off any money that had been paid in advance or that we owed, in order to avoid letting anyone down.

“We were fortunate enough to be in talks with Arts Council England in October as to how they may be able to help and intervene in our current difficulty, and we were delighted that they deemed us as being of national strategic importance to them, particularly around our work with children and young people.

“They helped cover our in-year deficit to date and assigned a consultant to work with the charitable trust on planning a way forward to help develop a sustainable future.”

He added: “We are very grateful to South Tyneside Council for continuing to support the Trust and we’re pleased that throughout schemes like panto partners and sponsorships from local businesses bring large contributions to the Trust.

“However moving forward, the future of the Customs House lies in the community it serves using it.

“The Customs House is an independent trust, where all of its surpluses go back into funding the work it does with the community it serves.

“Our ‘Friends’ scheme is a brilliant one that both supports the Customs House and offers great discounts on some of the events and amenities provided by the Trust.

“We also operate a ‘Custodian’ scheme where members of the community can set up a direct debit for just 10p per day, which can help to build up our reserves to face what still remains an uncertain future.

Ray said: “I think what people don’t realise is that despite the fact that the building is owned by the local authority, the charity has an all-repairing lease on the building, so anything that goes wrong, we have to fix it.

“The new front doors cost £10,000 and it costs £52,000 a year just to heat and light it. It’s a Grade II listed building and it costs to keep it going.

“A lot of people just come to see the shows and they don’t realise how many groups call this place home, we’ve got drama groups, ukulele groups, The Materialistics knitting group, breakdancers and Bollywood dancers, and we do a lot of work with the community.

“The big thing is, if we were to go, what would happen to them?

Twitter: @shieldsgazvicki