At a meeting held on 28 October, Rye Town Council decided that it could no longer delay taking action to address the substantial public subsidy required to support the Heritage Centre, home of the Town Model Sound & Light Show, a visitor information service, audio tours and Old Pier Amusement Machines.
Since the loss of visitor information funding from Rother District Council 10 years ago, the Town Council has struggled to run the Centre without placing an excessive burden on Rye Council Tax payers.
Despite reducing expenditure, re-merchandising and changing the retail offer in order to support local producers, the Centre has continued to be impacted adversely by factors outside of its control. Visitor numbers are affected not only by the weather but also postponed Brexit deadlines, which have resulted in a significant number of overseas students group Model booking cancellations this year. Additionally, the £12,500 a year business rates payable on the premises has not been helpful.
The level of subsidy required has continued to rise. Over the last 3 years it has averaged £22,000pa and, without urgent action, is forecast to reach a similar figure this year.
At the Council meeting, members of the public voiced their concerns about the possibility of visitors and residents no longer having access to the Town Model, a much-loved visitor attraction for some 40 years, as well as the impact of a closure of the Centre on neighbouring businesses.
Those present were advised that the Council had explored alternative locations for the Model and different governance structures for the Centre, without success. The need to subsidise the Centre at £22,000pa had depleted the Council’s reserves, which resulted in the suspension of grant giving to community organisations, an asset disposal and two vacant posts being left unfilled.
Members of the public were assured that their comments would be considered before the Town Council made a final decision on the future of the Centre and were advised that the Council’s priority is to ensure the continued provision of a face-to-face visitor information service in the town.
After careful consideration, the Council reluctantly concluded that, to protect the interests of local Council Tax payers and the Council’s other services, as from April 2020 the visitor information service should be relocated to the Town Hall, the Centre should be let and the Town Model should, if necessary, be placed into storage.
However, should any members of the community express a desire to work up a proposal to keep the Model at the Centre, the Council would be happy to provide support and guidance. Because a local charity has expressed interest in renting the Centre for another purpose, any such proposal would need to be agreed with the Council no later than 31 December.
Additionally, the Council welcomes any suggestions for alternative locations for the Model, probably as a static exhibit.
Located on the Strand Quay in Rye, overlooking the River Tillingham. Rye Heritage Centre was established by the Town Council in 1990 and – incorporating Rye Tourist Information Centre – was run successfully with the support of Rother District Council, until March 2005.
However, in autumn 2004, the District Council decided to cut its contribution towards Rye Tourist Information Centre by 40% from £50,000pa (index linked) to £30,000pa (index linked), effective from 1 April 2005.
The Town Council had, on numerous occasions, demonstrated to the District Council that even £50,000 was insufficient to meet the costs associated with running one of the busiest Tourist Information Centres in the South-East but Rother refused to reconsider its position. Although committed to ensuring the continued provision of a high quality tourist information service, the Town Council decided that it could not subsidise further the TIC from Heritage Centre surpluses. However, at the ‘eleventh hour’, members of Rye Hotels & Caterers’ Association stepped in and set up a new company, Rye Town Services (RTS), with the principal objective of running Rye TIC.
In April 2005, Rye Town Council entered into a partnership arrangement with Rye Town Services which saw Rye Town Services acting as the Council’s managing agent at the Heritage Centre for an initial one-year period. Rye Town Services entered into an agreement also with Rother District Council which agreed to pay the new company £30,000pa to continue to provide a Networked Tourist Information Centre.
The arrangement – which was supposed to have resulted in the Town Council receiving (at least) £5,000pa from RTS – continued until 31 October 2008, when RTS breached its contract with the Council by withdrawing from the Centre during a period of notice. No longer trading, RTS left a number of creditors – including the Town Council which is still owed c£17,500.
The Centre has been much improved since its inception in 1990 – notably the addition of a second extension and internal upgrade in 2001-02, funded largely by a Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) grant, through the South-East England Economic Development Agency (SEEDA).
The Rye Heritage Centre today is run by Rye Town Council under the management of Louisa O’Shaughnessy. It continues to house the Rye Town Model (a sound and light show based on a scale model of the town), a gift shop, audio tours and delightful Old Pier amusement machines.