.

A decade since council bought Tower & Winter Gardens

This week marks a decade since Blackpool Council took the bold action of buying the Tower and Winter Gardens,  securing the future of two of the resort’s  most famous tourism assets.

Although both landmarks are currently closed as part of the coronavirus lockdown, each has thrived under their new ownership.

Before Covid-19 struck, the Winter Gardens had a packed calendar including events every weekend during 2020.

Both it and the Tower, as well as the Golden Mile Centre which made up the third element of the £40m deal, have had significant investment in the last 10 years which might never have happened without public ownership.

The package included £14m from the Northwest European Regional Development Fund, £7.9m from the North West Development Agency, £10m from Blackpool Council  and £7m from the Homes and Communities Agency.

Coun Maxine Callow was the council’s cabinet member for tourism at the time of the purchase, while her husband Coun Peter Callow was leader of the then Conservative-led authority.

She recalls how the deal was on a knife edge.

Coun Callow said: “We were concerned at the time because it was at the tail end of the Labour government and they were short of money.

“So it was up in the air, and then Peter Mandelson stepped in and said we had the money. He was very fond of the Tower Ballroom and we are very grateful to him.

“We were on a  knife edge for 10 days. It was a gigantic move and took great courage.

“But I don’t think we have looked back since. The Tower has not been something we could turn round in five minutes but it’s being returned to its former glory.

“The Winter Gardens has also needed a lot of money spending on it.

“I think the present council has been very responsible and have accepted the challenge. I think they all think it was the right decision at the end of the day.”

It was March 31, 2010, when the deal was announced and ownership of the jewels in Blackpool’s crown passed from leisure entrepreneur Trevor Hemmings to Blackpool Council.

The Winter Gardens

The Grade II listed Victorian venue was in need of up to £20m of investment according to Leisure Parcs and many feared the complex could close for good.

A report deemed the landmark had “little purpose in the modern world.”

It was in dire need of pots of money – and plenty of tender, loving care.

Coming under public ownership created access to new sources of funding such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, while the council has been able to borrow money at low rates.

The first major investment saw the £1.25m refurbishment of the  Church Street entrance, rotunda and Floral Hall while original features of the Mazzei cafe, hidden since the 1960s, were uncovered.

Subsequent work has included repairs to the ballroom ceiling and Spanish hall roof, totalling around £4m which included a £500,000 grant from Heritage England.

Olympia also spent three years as the Illuminasia  attraction, and there have been ongoing repairs and refurbishments to the Coronation Street facade of the building, among other projects.

A £25m new conference centre being built onto the Winter Gardens is also expected to boost year-round visits to the resort.

All the venue’s profits are  reinvested back into the building where maintenance also includes infrastructure such as drainage and air conditioning.

The council’s head of heritage Carl Carrington said: “Local authority ownership has made a vast difference to the Winter Gardens.

“If we didn’t step in, part or all of the building might have been lost and public ownership has enabled us to access different funding sources as well as being able to borrow on prudential rates.

“It was a bold move by the council, but it was a measured risk which has really paid off. ”

Carl added while the venue now attracted events year round, it was also vital to the residents of the town.

He said: “The real impact has been on the people of Blackpool who are able to come to the shows and visit the complex much more.

“The Winter Gardens is also very much part of our future strategy for the town centre with the government putting much more emphasis on events and leisure.”

The Tower and Golden Mile Centre
The £40m deal which saw Blackpool Council buy the leisure assets also heralded the start of a 20-year agreement with global leisure giant Merlin.

The company already operated the Sea Life Centre in the town, but attracting such a big name to run the Grade I listed Tower and bring its Madame Tussauds brand to Blackpool was also a game-changer.

Investment has transformed the top-of-the Tower experience rebranded as the Tower Eye, brought in the Dungeon attraction and enhanced the historic Tower Circus.

In addition Merlin has continually invested in Madame Tussauds, bringing in new figures most seasons and adding to it most recently with a collection of Marvel comic figures.

A new attraction within the complex, which had been due to open this Easter, is on hold due to the coronavirus situation.

The original £40m deal included £10m towards refurbishment of the Tower. Scaffolding was in place until 2016 while steelwork was repaired, while areas of stonework have also been restored.

Kate Shane, head of Merlin in Blackpool, said: “It was 100 per cent the right thing to do to bring these assets into public ownership where there was the opportunity to gain additional funding that could not be accessed by a private owner.

“Those buildings are very costly to operate and maintain. You never stop maintaining the steel structure, it’s like the Forth Bridge.

“Bringing Merlin in meant we have been able to bring our globally recognised brands to Blackpool, and Madame Tussauds for example is the only one in the UK outside of London.

“Blackpool has a big place in Merlin’s heart and the relationship between Merlin and Blackpool is a significant one.”

Milestones include the Tower Ballroom’s yearly slot on the BBC’s flagship show Strictly Come Dancing, free access to the Tower buildings (although there is an admission charge for separate attractions), and the introduction of a residents pass for Merlin’s Blackpool attractions.

Hollywood, including director Tim Burton, has also used the Tower as the backdrop for filming.

Kate added: “The Tower now belongs to the people of Blackpool and the future has been shored up for it in public ownership.

“It has also created the opportunity to bring more people to Backpool and Merlin operates all year round.

“We see people from the States and Australia who come over wanting to see Blackpool Tower. It’s key to Merlin.”

More from Local

Cover art for Family Affair

On Air

Ian Shepherd playing Mary J Blige - Family Affair