A PROJECT designed to create a new arts venue in the heart of Taunton town centre will not stop plans for a similar venue within the Firepool site, Somerset Council has pledged.

The approved masterplan for the Firepool regeneration site includes the potential delivery of a multi-purpose venue (MPV), which will be funded in part through the sale of 430 homes within the site.

The Somerset Arts Business Cultural Alliance (SABCA) and the Creative Innovation Centre (CICCIC) have jointly put together ‘Project Gaumont’, which aims to bring the former Gaumount Theatre (now a Mecca Bingo) back into use as a major arts and cultural venue.

Somerset Council said it had received requests to meet with Project Gaumont representatives, and reaffirmed its commitment to delivering the Firepool MPV if a successful business case could be made.

The grade two listed building opened in 1932 as the Gaumont Palace Theatre, and was turned into an Odeon cinema in 1969.

Somerset County Gazette: The site of the former Gaumont Theatre in Taunton.The site of the former Gaumont Theatre in Taunton. (Image: Daniel Mumby)

The venue regularly hosted live music and attracted a number of high-profile bands in its heyday – including Adam and the Ants, David Bowie, Elton John, Iron Maiden, Peter Gabriel, The Rolling Stones, The Stranglers and The Undertones.

The building was closed down by the Rank Organisation in September 1981, but reopened two months later as a Top Rank bingo club, which later became a Mecca Bingo club.

While the former projection box has been converted into offices, the auditorium and foyers of the theatre remains reasonably intact.

The backers of ‘Project Gaumont’ believe that returning the theatre to its original use would benefit the town centre and provide better value for money than building a new venue from scratch.

A spokesman said: “We believe that the location of the Mecca building is ideally suited.

“Any new build will have to be away from the town centre and hence will not benefit the town centre, which we believe is an essential element in keeping our town centre alive for those that live and trade there.

“It’s next to Castle Green and the Museum of Somerset, making the location a cultural quarter, and is next to all transport link.”

Project Gaumont intends for the building to host a range of events, from live music and comedy to trade shows, film screenings, sports events (such as boxing matches), circus performances and banquets.

However, live theatre would not be possible due to the limitations of the listed building – meaning it would not be directly competing with the nearby Brewhouse Theatre.

The spokesman added: “Large theatre builds only happen where there is an infrastructure to support it, so any theatre that seats 2,000 people or more would require a whole rethink of roads, services, hotels, transport and many others.

Somerset County Gazette: Plans for the new venue in Firepool.Plans for the new venue in Firepool. (Image: AHR Architects)

“Taunton can’t do that now, but it can take on the Mecca building. Taunton needs a 1,000-plus seat venue and we have one – we just need to reclaim it.”.

The building was acquired by Somerset West and Taunton Council in January 2020 for £2.1m, as part of the council’s strategy of acquiring commercial property to provide funding for front-line services through rents.

The building automatically transferred to Somerset Council on April 1, when the five existing councils were abolished, with Mecca Bingo still holding the lease on the facility.

A council spokesman said: “Invitations have been received by a number of elected members of both Somerset Council and Taunton Town Council) for a meeting to discuss the ‘Project Gaumont’ campaign.

“There has been no request to us for financial support or other advice. There are no discussions happening or currently planned about selling this asset or transferring anything to Project Gaumont and there remains a tenant in place with a lease.”

The Firepool masterplan – which was approved by the district council in March – includes a commitment to the MPV within the Firepool ‘leisure quarter’, which will also include a 130-bed hotel, an eight-screen cinema, a bowling alley, a nursery, a health hub and “limited commercial and retail floorspace”.

The district council estimated in November 2021 that it would cost around £25m to deliver the MPV, with the bulk of the funding coming from the sale of houses at the eastern edge of the site.

Within the masterplan, the number of intended dwellings within the site has been reduced from 506 to 430, with a mixture of apartments, student flats and town houses.

Somerset Council said that it remained committed to delivering the MPV on Firepool provided that funding was sufficient.

A spokesman said: “The case for the MPV at Firepool continues to be predicated on the creation of a financial surplus from delivering of the rest of the Firepool site.

“The facility would have a board scope of uses that are unlikely to be met by the Gaumont building.

“With a lease and tenant in place at the Gaumont, and without a current funding plan for the creation of a new theatre within the Gaumont building, it seems unlikely that that Project Gaumont would impact on the approved masterplan for Firepool, which includes the MPV.”

For more information on the Project Gaumont proposals, visit www.project-gaumont.co.uk.