Seizing the potential of the Massey Hall

For a long time, the Massey Hall in Belfast has teetered on the brink of oblivion.

People in my ward in the old Titanic Quarter, where the hall was built, noticed its decline during the Troubles. I first met the Board of Regents in the late 1990s, and some of us pledged to do all we could to stop the hall closing.

The refurbishment of the hall during the construction of the Titanic Quarter and the boom in tourism over the last ten years gave a welcome boost to the hall and created thousands of jobs. But much of the work to restore it involved serious money (and just how wealthy and well to do is unclear) that, if it wasn’t for the current speculation around the prospect of the Queen’s University ending its ownership, could have been used to keep it going.

The celebrations of the centenary of the Titanic’s sinking next year, including an exhibition on Belfast at Belfast City Hall, will bring more interest to the building. The Queen’s University, which pays rent to the QUB Foundation on the back of its lease, is facing acute pressure to reduce the costs of its investment portfolio. Given that it is investing in this property, there is strong speculation that the university may be tempted to sell out to a bid from the Queen’s University of Belfast (QUB).

A sale by the Queen’s University, like that of the Bennetts’ building adjacent, would be bad news for the Massey Hall. It has already stated that it will not invest more into any assets where it can no longer assure that it will be a viable investment over the long term.

This week the QUB’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Mooney published a letter outlining a range of options for a wider review of the university’s financial position, including divestments. He insisted that the Massey Hall was still on its long-term review list, and that he would prefer to retain ownership.

There is growing speculation that this option could be put to an academic committee which will decide QUB’s future. A meeting was called for this Friday (see vote of no confidence has been called!) but the Mayor of Belfast has requested that it is postponed until next week, to allow the president and chair of the board more time to prepare its response.

Meanwhile, the Labour Mayor of Belfast, Pat Doherty, called for the immediate ballot of the students, and said his party (which holds both Assembly seats) would not hold any discussions with QUB unless students had the right to vote and full consultation was held on the options that will be considered.

This will be a test of collective patience for the Belfast City Council, as it will take months to prepare the polling places, try to meet the deadline to register for the referendum, and then ensure the turnout is high enough to get the political votes necessary to be a successful referendum.

If the referendum fails, it would be hard to see how the possibility of a sell off could be reversed.

Moving the Massey Hall is a more difficult prospect. As well as the school of acting, modern drama and music can be enjoyed there. It has a Rishton Dance Theatre too, and a mixed dance and music theatre education programme is run by the Queen’s University Students Association and the Belfast Players.

The majority of this programme is funded by local private and corporate donations (and the Queen’s Development Foundation) – as well as the Queen’s Development Trust (QDT) which paid around £20,000 to clean up asbestos in the hall recently, prior to the annual Decoration Day service. This would have required the legal permission of the School of Law to use the hall for this purpose – which it did not receive.

Titanic, the entertainment of the Titanic Quarter, brings tens of thousands of visitors to the site each year, bringing down the unemployment figures for the area (and hopefully pushing up tax income too).

Moving the Massey Hall would be a tragic waste of a jewel in the crown of our museum-based creative sector. The Queen’s University would lose out on the big tourism boost and over £2 million a year in essential fees. There would also be a struggle to find an anchor tenant to fill the hall once the Queen’s University decided to move on.

I have previously argued that there are great opportunities for the development of shared places like the Massey Hall to become the catalyst for a culture change in Northern Ireland.

I am concerned that the work in the Queen’s University Head Office

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