Those of you who worked at the Beer Festival and attended the debriefing session on the Sunday evening will have heard David Short, our licensee, warn about the threat to the Corn Exchange. This threat is very real and something which should concern us all, for the City Council is threatening drastic alteration and "improvements".
None of us who have worked at Beer Festivals would deny that improvements are needed. The loo and kitchen facilities can only be described as disgusting and the roof still seems to leak in one or two places during heavy rain. What the council intend to do however is to plaster the inside with soundproofing, insert a stage and a balcony and hammer through a walkway at the balcony level across Corn Exchange Street. This botched up mess is intended to be a concert hall!
The Corn Exchange has been described as ugly. I can only assume that the people who use this term have never actually looked at the building; its patterned brick and tile work, the plaques either side of the entrance, the paintings just below the roof glazing, the roof beams with their crests and the space, light and atmosphere of the place. It is a beautiful example of this type of Victorian building, to obscure its features with soundproofing, a balcony and a stage, destroying its atmosphere and smashing a walkway through its walls is nothing short of wanton vandalism.
Many of its current users are also likely to be deprived of its facilities if these "improvements" go ahead. It has been a venue for beer and wine festivals, antique fairs, the Cambridge Motor Show, book fairs, exhibitions, rock and folk music concerts, wrestling, roller skating, leisure fairs and many other activities. It is ideally suited to these purposes, yes even for rock concerts, for the noise question has been grossly overplayed. Can the idiosyncracies of a very small minority be allowed to destroy the pleasures of many?
In spite of the present assurances of the Council how many of these uses will be allowed to continue if the alterations are allowed to go ahead? How can roller skating continue? Will the sawdust, spilt beer and other minor mess of a beer festival be tolerated? Will rock concerts be allowed or will the risk of vandalism to the new facilities by rock fans be thought too great? The stage and other internal structures will make the space available for fairs and markets far too small and cramped. From the displayed plans there certainly won't be space for the Beer Festival. All we will be left with is a small, inadequate, underused, expensive apology for a concert hall.
Even if the present activities are allowed to continue, what about the cost of hiring the Exchange? With the "improvements" the cost is bound to rise because of the additional "facilities" and to recoup some of the cost. This is going to make it economically impossible for many of the current users to even think about hiring it in the future.
No - the real answer is to improve the loos and kitchens, put in adequate power supplies and replace the present wooden hutches with something more suitable, all at relatively low cost; then go out and drum up the sort of business for which it is really suitable. Trade fairs, exhibitions, demonstrations, shows, fairs, activities like wrestling, roller skating, badminton and other sports, indoor markets and all the other things which just need a large clear enclosed space.
Admittedly Cambridge could do with a concert hall but no matter what you do to it the Corn Exchange is not suitable. This is just a cheapskate compromise which will satisfy no-one. The only answer is a purpose built one which is going to need public subscription as well as Council funding - and that needs organising now!