RICC 'force for good' for Bay

RICC 'force for good' for Bay

Published - 16th Mar

THE 'biggest political football south of Bristol' is how retiring chairman Matthew Clarke described the Riviera International Conference Centre.

The centre, originally known as the English Riviera International Centre, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Since the first day it opened, when people had to go through turnstiles to get in, it has been caught up in controversy.

This year was no exception as opposition councillors challenged mayor Gordon Oliver's decision to support the centre with an extra £2million for repairs on top of a £200,000 increase in its subsidy over the next two years taking it up to £840,000 with the money taken from reserves.

His decision has been challenged at a time when the council is making £11million cuts.

With the centre celebrating its silver anniversary, the board has a arranged a series of promotions which they hope will highlight the centre as a 'force for good' in the resort.

Mr Clarke, who with the rest of the board, except Cllr Robert Excell and company secretary Paul Lucas, are to step down at the end of the month, referred back to the days when the centre opened as the English Riviera International Conference Centre with turnstiles at its doors.

He said the centre had been a political football since the former council leader Tony Key's statement that the centre 'would not cost ratepayers a penny'.

Mr Clarke said Mr Key had believed what the council's consultants had forecast.

"It was from that moment that the noose was tied around poor ERIC's neck. Even with the name change to RICC, the noose has got tighter and tighter," he said.

"For 25 years letters have poured into the Herald Express from seemingly intelligent councillors and members of the public repeating the quote, often with aggressive, misplaced authority, indicating that because it was said it must be true.

"It could be said that having the centre as the focus of attention for the past 25 years means that other expenditure, funding and grants, on other council properties have been shielded from the public's attention."

The centre was one of many Torbay Council premises which needed maintenance and support over the past 25 years, he said.

He cited the Princess and Festival Theatres, Torre Abbey, Torbay Leisure Centre, Torquay Museum, the town hall and Occombe Farm.

"All of these building are part of what make Torbay live and each and every one has to be paid for," said Mr Clarke.

"This centre represents the essential hub for Torbay and both nationally and internationally is recognised for its quality."

Barry Cole, who is retiring as managing director at the end of the month, said that since 1997, the board and management team had driven down the council's support grant from what would have been at today's prices £1.4million to just over £600,000.

He said they had needed 'additional funding because of the economic downturn'.

He pointed out that the utilities bill for the centre is just under £1,000 a day, the day-to-day maintenance costs are just over £600 per day.

He detailed a whole range of successes the centre had achieved over the years and how it had pumped £6.7million into the local economy through events hosting 68,361 delegates with 33,355 nights spent in the resort in 2011.

That compares with a figure of £9.6million in 2010, £7.7million in 2009 and £9.1million in 2008.

He said the centre spent almost £400,000 with local and regional suppliers and £419,00 with local depots of national suppliers.

It employed 41 full time staff, 86 part-time and 74 casual staff contributing £1.5million to the local economy.

Since it opened, the centre has seen many changes including expansion of its Lifestyle suite which now has 1,100 members and had trained 300 weight training instructors.

It has helped more than 600 people get better through the Torbay GP referral scheme.

South Devon College, Paignton Community College and Torquay Girls' Grammar students use the facilities.

The centre supports lawns green bowler Sam Tolchard and water polo player Jack Skerrit with their training as England international sportsmen.

The pool is used for around 100,000 swims a year, 7,800 swimming lessons for children and 390 for adults and hosts 70 pool parties. It also runs life-saving courses.

The centre offers work experience, and 81 per cent of managers and supervisors have been internally promoted.

The events held range from the Civic Carol Concert to pop group McFly, national conferences for the NUT and BMA, and many association conferences, with up to 1,500 delegates.

The centre has held more than a dozen awards.

Conference Torquay manager Nicky Harding was recognised as among the top 25 people in the country making a contribution to the conference industry and the centre was among four finalists for the Best UK Conference Bureau.

The centre also supported the community with 2,000 carers taking advantage of their free swim scheme, participating in the Library Leisure Card Scheme and the English Riviera promotion Kids Go Free last year.

Mr Cole said the key to the centre's future was maintaining quality and increasing turnover.

"I would like to think that as a team of hands-on managers we have driven out any fat and become leaner and meaner," he said.

But he said the last couple of years had been challenging, as it had been at centres across the country. It had not been helped by talk of demolition of the centre, he said.

He said he had felt for some years that it was time for him to move on.

"I am proud of what we have achieved with the support of the board and the efforts of the managers and their teams, and I now feel that a different sort of leader could take the business to the next stage," he said.

But while he is retiring from the centre on March 31, he emphasised he would not be retiring from business.

Article courtesy of Herald Express 16/03/12

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