To the brink and back: how historic Diss Corn Hall was saved and revived by a caring community
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2017
Today, it stands as both a poignant reminder of a Norfolk market town's historic past and its bright, exciting future.
But as smiling residents, volunteers and donors walked around the new Diss Corn Hall in amazement at its transformation after a multi-million pound revamp, many in the town could remember a time when its future looked less certain.
Indeed, in 2006 representatives from the South Norfolk town even discussed mothballing the site which seemed a relic of a bygone age, when farmers would bring in their corn by horse and cart to sell to traders and the public.
Even when town councillor Glyn Walden suggested turning it into an arts venue, the sheer amount of work involved in renovating the worn building seemed, to some, like a mountain to climb,
Undeterred, he set up a team determined to change the future of a building that would have cost £500,000 to mothball and was costing taxpayers £50,000 per year just to keep standing.
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With hard work and determination, they reopened the 19th century building as an arts venue in 2010 and went on to win crucial Heritage Lottery Fund for its revival as part of a wider project to improve Diss' Heritage Triangle area.
Diss Town Council also put in £330,000 to the Grade II listed building which has been closed for two years while the improvements have taken place, with other groups also contributing.
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But most significant was the support of the community itself, which has raised huge sums of cash to revive a building they love and which is part of the town's heritage.
The culmination of more than 10 years of hard work was finally on show at a celebration on Tuesday, May 16, the first time many had a chance to see the scale of the changes.
Gone were the outdated and limited facilities, as well as the risk of serious water damage which had plagued its past.
In its place are a new auditorium with improved acoustics which seats 300 people, studio areas for extra activities and exhibition spaces – all with hi-tech underfloor heating.
There is also a new cafe – called Frederick's at the Corn Hall – which residents can visit throughout the day, with the aim that the venue is not just a place for evening, arts entertainment but is an all-day round community hub.
'This is a real asset for the town,' said Diss Town Council leader Graham Minshull at Tuesday's event.
'It will be of huge benefit to the community.
'The great thing is that this is not a town council thing. This money was raised by volunteers. It is just amazing that they've managed to raise the money to do all this work in the town.
'This is a group of people who didn't want to see the building boarded up. They wanted to see something the whole town could be proud of.'
The changes also mean Diss Town Council has been able to reduce its yearly contribution to £20,000 – which he said, in spite of the authority's £330,000 contribution, would save taxpayers money in the long-term.
In an emotional speech to residents, volunteers and donors at Tuesday's celebration event, Corn Hall director Angela Sykes began by saying: 'Well...it's pretty good isn't it?'
She said the campaign to revive the Corn Hall had been tough but added: 'The thing that gets you through is the volunteers, who have helped us through the whole process.'
Ms Sykes said their support was 'really humbling', adding: 'You can't run the Corn Hall without volunteers. The volunteers are really the ones who should get the thanks.'
She added that the Corn Hall staff had 'worked unbelievably hard', saying: 'It's a huge group effort.'
The Corn Hall was officially opened by Afghanistan war veteran and double amputee Duncan Slater, from nearby Scole, on May 5.
Its upcoming programme includes a variety of music, comedy and shows, including big names such as David Starkey and Michael Portillo.
For more information, visit www.thecornhall.co.uk