Assembly Rooms Fringe founder warns over shake-up

William Burdett-Coutts, the founder of Assembly Rooms Fringe venue. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

William Burdett-Coutts, the founder of Assembly Rooms Fringe venue. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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THE founder of one of Edinburgh’s best-known Fringe venues has warned that plans to give it a new lease of life may be doomed to failure because of changes made during a controversial refurbishment.

William Burdett-Coutts, who launched the Assembly Rooms as a Fringe venue exactly 35 years ago, has warned that plans to hand over the building to a host of different operators are “unrealistic.”

The impresario, who was forced to relocate his Fringe operation after losing a bidding war for the Georgian landmark, has questioned plans by the city council to make the building a “blank canvas” for the next five years.

But Mr Burdett-Coutts said the loss of key spaces in the Assembly Rooms, which he had campaigned against before a £10 million makeover got underway, and the drift of Fringe audiences to the south side of the city, would make it difficult for anyone to make its future operation stack up financially.

He said it was unclear if the council wanted to operate the Assembly Rooms as a money-making exercise during the summer festival period or genuinely wanted to bring festival crowds back into the area.

It emerged at the weekend that the local authority had issued an open call for proposals, making it potentially available to a host of different festival organisers, promoters and 
producers.

Proposals from theatre producers, TV companies, event organisers, brand and advertising agencies, marketing companies and digital media firms will all be welcomed by the council, according to the council.

The document states: “We are open to any ideas for rental income generation and for its use during this period.”

Mr Burdett-Coutts said: “It sounds like a very broad sweep and one that is a bit unrealistic.

“I am just not clear what their objectives are. They’ve got to decide whether they want to draw people to the New Town and create great events in there, or whether it is something for them purely to earn money from.”

The official tender document for the building points out that it was operated by the Edinburgh International Festival from the 1950s to the late 1970s. It states that management of the venue are “interested in expanding its role during the festival to reflect its history and to celebrate its flexibility.”

Proposals from theatre producers, TV companies, event oganisers, brand and advertising agencies, marketing companies and digital media firms will all be welcomed by the council, according to the council.

The document states: “The Assembly Rooms are flexible in offering to act as a key venue for the festival. We are open to any ideas for rental income generation and for its use during this period.”

Mr Burdett-Coutts said: “It sounds like a very broad sweep and one that is a bit unrealistic.

“I am just not clear what their objectives are. When we pitched for the building after the refurbishment work it seemed to be to raise the most amount of money from its rental.

“They’ve got to decide whether they want to draw people to the New Town and create great events in there, or whether it is something for them purely to earn money from. The general reaction to what the council did was that they ruined a great building which worked during the festival, for the sake of having shops and a restaurant in there.

“It’s never going to be what it was, because it can’t be, but it’s still a fantastic building in the centre of the New Town.

“The challenge for the Assembly Rooms in future is that the New Town has lost its Fringe audience. How do you persuade any operator to go in and spend a lot of money? It’s probably going to take a combination of interests to make it work, but the challenge is how to make any of it it add up commercially.”

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