Special report: Crazy golf, bowling alley and a bigger cinema at Northampton's Sol Central - all on hold because of Greyfriars

Sol Central's owners say a crazy golf operator and a ten-pin bowling company have' been in talks with taking up space there.
Sol Central's owners say a crazy golf operator and a ten-pin bowling company have' been in talks with taking up space there.

Multi-million pound plans to place a cinema on the Greyfriars site in Northampton fly in the face of independent advice and are preventing leisure firms from investing in Sol Central, the site owners have revealed.

And the bosses of Northampton town centre’s only leisure complex say the looming promise of a multiplex on the former bus station land is putting the stoppers on a number of possible expansions to the site.

In the past year, Palace Capital, the London firm that took over at Sol Central in 2015, claims to have been in talks with a crazy golf operator, a tenpin bowling company and various restaurant chains since clearing out the building once occupied by Gala Casino.

But chief executive of the company Neil Sinclair says firms are just not willing to invest knowing that a cinema complex - to be operated by The Light - could be built less than half mile away.

This week Palace Capital has supplied the Chronicle & Echo with a report by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners that suggests an extra eight-screen multiplex in Northampton will see takings drop at Vue and Cineworld, Sixfields, by 30 per cent over the next ten years.

Mr Sinclair believes the borough council simply must rethink the Greyfriars development in a way that allows the existing businesses in the town to carry on.

Neil Sinclair.

Neil Sinclair.

He said: “They have stopped Vue spending more money on their cinema. The golf and bowling people we are talking to say ‘we can’t risk it’.

“Greyfriars hasn’t even gone through planning yet.

“But there is a high risk this development will undermine the future viability of the cinemas here.

“They are already trading at 11 per cent below the benchmark in Northampton.”

Plans for the Greyfriars site include an eight-screen multiplex, operated by The Light.

Plans for the Greyfriars site include an eight-screen multiplex, operated by The Light.

The Chron has already reported how Vue, which has 85 cinemas across the UK, is holding off on a £1 million expansion at Sol Central due to the Greyfriars development. Our online poll asking Chron readers whether they want to see another cinema in the town can also be viewed here.

The former brutalist bus station at Greyfriars was blown up in 2014 having stood for 40 years and the demolition left a four-acre plot in the town centre open for development.

Northampton Borough Council, which owns the land, set about marketing the site for a potential developer and eventually whittled contenders down to a shortlist of two. In July 2016, the borough displayed the possibles schemes.

Number one promised an eight screen cinema or “family entertainment centre” surrounded by 500 student apartments, a fitness gym and a 110 bed hotel and six restaurant units.

Construction was due to start at the Greyfriars in early 2018, but so far a planning application is yet to be submitted.

Construction was due to start at the Greyfriars in early 2018, but so far a planning application is yet to be submitted.

Scheme two promised a smaller “boutique” four-screen cinema, 339 student flats and 11 restaurants.

In September 2016, scheme one, submitted by Greyfriars Quarter Developments Limited, was chosen and the developers later posted on their website that The Light cinema chain would run the eight-screen multiplex.

But the Chron can reveal part of the council’s decision to opt for the plan with the bigger cinema came off the back of a report co-authored by the owner of The Light itself, John Sullivan.

That report by Mr Sullivan’s firm Cinema Next Consulting, uses Liverpool as a case study and suggests that the success of a new Odeon in the large city could be replicated here Northampton.

“A comparable new cinema in Northampton city centre will be able to replicate these findings,” the report states.

“Admissions should at least return to 2009 levels although probably much higher.”

Mr Sinclair believes the council based that decision on a biased report.

“That report is just not impartial,” he said. “I am not sure whether the councillors were aware of that when that report was presented to the council.”

The study by Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners also contradicts the council-commissioned findings.

“(A) new cinema at Greyfriars will add to the over-supply of cinema screens and seats in Northampton and could affect the viability of existing facilities,” it reads.

Cinemas in Northampton, the report adds, are already trading at 11 per cent below the current benchmark.

“The level of under-performance is more likely to affect future investment and also the closure of a cinema, as was the case in Milton Keynes,” it concludes.

Mr Sinclair believes the borough council could – and should – have negotiated a scheme “complimentary” to the existing businesses in town.

“Our view is that if a cinema were dropped from the plans everything will be alright.

“The council should be looking after the interests of [Northampton’s] existing businesses,” he said. “We don’t know whether they fully explored the idea of a “family leisure centre”.

Palace Capital took over at Sol Central in 2015 after meeting with Northampton officials during a property convention in Cannes, south of France.

The property firm liked the idea of the site in a growing town and paid £20 million for a building Mr Sinclair called “iconic”.

At the time, Gala Casinos was still paying the rent on a 14,000 square foot premises the company had vacated in 2011.

But Palace Capital is understood to have allowed Gala to pay a lump sum so the property firm could clear it out.

Last year, the company won planning approval to convert the former casino into restaurants, but so far only one provider has expressed serious interest in taking up a unit.Mr Sinclair said he could not say who that will be but confirmed it was a restaurant chain with “10 to 15” sites across the UK.

Cllr Danielle Stone, Labour Group Leader & ward councillor for the town centre, said:

“Sol Central is a key part of the future success of the town centre and so the Borough Council must work in close partnership with stakeholders to achieve this. The owners of Sol Central and VUE are willing to invest for the long term and that will attract more businesses in there.

The problem for Sol Central is the huge uncertainty surrounding the future of the Greyfriars site. At present the aspiration is to build a multi-screen cinema on there amongst a few other things.

The reality is that VUE is very unlikely to commit to Sol Central if another multi-cinema complex is going to open up just around the corner.

Personally, I just don’t think there is capacity for two multi-screen cinema venues in the town centre with one at Sol Central and other at Greyfriars.

The Greyfriars site should offer something different in terms of leisure rather chasing the same pound as Sol Central. I would like to see something on there that attracts families. At present the town centre doesn’t have enough family entertainment. A family can spend a day in Milton Keynes but only about an hour or so in Northampton town centre.

A multi-screen cinema needs to be dropped from the Greyfriars site plans.”