How can Dereham get the best out of the Memorial Hall?
- Credit: Archant
How to solve a problem like Dereham Memorial Hall?
Built way back in 1818 as a coachworks, this striking venue is widely considered to be a jewel in the town's crown.
Having spent time as a movie theatre and heated swimming pool, it represents a symbol of Dereham's rich history. The latter is still underneath the hall's floor to this day.
So why, then, do so many people fail to recognise this cultural hub as a centre for popular entertainment?
And why are others still completely unaware of its existence?
When Dereham Town Council (DTC) undertook renovation and modernisation of the memorial hall in 2010, the plan was to develop a managed facility to be used intensively for the benefit of the community.
That vision was, however, thwarted by financial constraints. When the building finally reopened in 2012, it had to be managed by DTC without a dedicated management team.
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While other venues in the region such as Diss Corn Hall and Bungay's Fisher Theatre flourished with charitable models behind them, the memorial hall did not take the same direction.
Believing the hall was being seriously under-used, the Friends of Dereham Memorial Hall (FODMH) was formed in 2013 by a group of like-minded people with a desire to fulfil its potential.
By promoting various shows, concerts and activities, the friends have gone some way towards plugging the gap , but believe there is plenty more to offer.
Tim Cara, chairman of FODMH, said: "We have got this wonderful resource that is not being used properly.
"It cannot be doing the town council any good to have the hall empty six nights a week.
"If you look at Diss Corn Hall, there are things happening every night - sometimes two things a day."
Mr Cara and the friends believe there are two possible directions in which Dereham Memorial Hall can go.
The first is to carry on along the same trajectory, which sees FODMH build up its resources and put on as many events as possible as.
Alternatively, DTC could lease the building for next to no money to a newly-created trust, which would effectively take ownership and could apply for various arts grants via public-funding streams.
That door, according to Mr Cara, is "firmly shut at the moment".
He added: "Diss and Bungay are smaller places than Dereham, but they have proven it works.
"What they've done in Pakefield at the Seagull Theatre, for example, is terrific - and it has been through hard work.
"It makes the case for an independent organisation because the manager can say to local groups 'come and use our space, we will not charge you'', but while they're there they will buy a drink or two."
The town council did not comment directly on FODMH's proposal, but said enquiries for use of the hall were "busier than ever".
A spokesman said "all necessary steps" had been taken to ensure the venue was Covid-secure, while hirers are being offered 25pc off booking fees up to March 18.
The impact of coronavirus has, of course, made the task of keeping things busy at the hall even harder.
It has sat largely dormant since March 2020, but the return of events like Dereham Blues Festival in 2022 - whose headline opening concert is held at the Norwich Street theatre - will provide a big boost.
"We have been able to work with Dereham Blues Festival and that is a big part of our income stream and raising our profile," said Mr Cara.
"We have had some really big names. Back in the day you would not get bigger than Paul Jones and Georgie - and they have both said they would love to come back. They guarantee a full house.
"Events like the blues festival give us a surplus which helps us operate for the rest of the year.
"Of course you have got to pay these people and there is competition with Norwich being nearby. People naturally look that way for their entertainment and it has to be something really attractive to draw people in."
FODMH now has its eyes fixed firmly on the future, starting with a scheduled meeting at the Assembly Rooms on January 13.
Covid-permitting, it will be the group's first in-person meeting for two years.
Up for discussion will be event planning, investment, fundraising and how to get the best out of Dereham Memorial Hall over the coming months.
Mr Cara said: "We have got the bones of a programme for next year, and it is important we show people we are not standing still.
"We have had people come in and say 'I just thought it was another village hall', but what they discover is a welcoming theatre. You also get people coming back saying they had their wedding reception here.
"Beneath it all, the hall really belongs to the town."
Those interested in supporting Dereham Memorial Hall can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07432091044.