Dreamland Somnabulance?

11337061_919993858043785_9220985502227324257_oDreamland is set to open in less than a week. I’m excited, but I’m also worried. It’s £2.3 million over budget, it doesn’t look ready and its biggest single provider of public money seems to think that management is a bit of a shambles.

The scenic railway is unfinished, the log flume has been dropped from plans and despite months of hype there are still seem to be nearly 500 tickets left for the opening night “Hullabaloo”. What’s going on?

Dreamland operator Sands Heritage Ltd (SHL) — with whom TDC signed a non-binding Heads of Terms in October last year – clearly set itself an optimistically early opening date, after emerging as most-favoured potential operator.

(But oddly, unless I am mistaken, it doesn’t appear to have a final legally binding contract. I may be wrong: TDC predictably haven’t responded to my request for comment, made more than a week ago. But if this is indeed the case, to be opening without the legal i’s dotted and t’s fully crossed seems cavalier, from both parties…)

The project, meanwhile, is reportedly already some £2.3 million over budget and seems far from ready, even for its initial stages. (When will staff be trained to operate the rides, given that they are only just being put in place?) The reasons for this are no doubt multifarious, but it seems a significant cost overrun this early on.

I’m excited by the reopening and I don’t want to piss on the bonfire from which the Dreamland phoenix is rising (we all love a narrative of rise, fall and redemption/resurrection), but alarm bells are faintly ringing.

I’ve spoken to quite a few serving and former staff– plenty have come and gone already — at various levels at Dreamland. Their criticisms of project management, by TDC and by SHL are notably strident. And they are not alone in having concerns.

The Heritage Lottery Foundation (HLF) which provided nearly one third of Dreamland’s £18.6 million of public funding is also reportedly far from happy about how things are being managed. Stuart McLeod, Head of the HLF South East, told me this week:

As custodians of National Lottery players’ money we have raised some concerns with the Dreamland Trust and Thanet District Council particularly regarding project management and reporting.

It’s an infinitely politely worded shot across the bows, with an important sweetener:

We remain confident that the regeneration of Dreamland Margate is being delivered to a high standard and, over time, will realise impressive benefits for the local economy and Thanet’s residents.

I really hope they are right; it certainly has the potential to be a success and £18.6 million should jump-start any commercial business nicely!

An aside: Ironically,with Dreamland set to be handed over under a 99-year lease to a recently established private company, TDC’s draft local plan still envisions the site run as a not-for-profit enterprise.

I believe this was the dream of the Dreamland Trust trustees who raised so much of the public money, before being pipped to the punch for the operatorship by new kids in town SHL; now tidily getting the site for a century too.

Cynics meanwhile note that the Local Plan also contains the fall-back option: If the amusement park fails, the site can be developed (with the proviso that the Scenic Railway remains in place.)

One local property developer, bearish on Dreamland’s commercial potential, tells me snidely that this is precisely what he would do, given the chance.

Sands Heritage Ltd bosses will no doubt understand, if not accept, the cynicism. Thanet has seen a lot of bungled and botched developments and property scandals and the long-term lease of neighbouring Arlington House has not proven wise.

Unlike some of the naysayers however, I still like to believe that SHL owner Nick Conington has his heart in the right place and genuinely wants to make a go at it. (His hotel certainly seems pleasant, for what that’s worth!)

So, Nick, I appreciate you have a management team in place and wouldn’t want to second guess them. But it’s your fingers in the blender if things go tits up. I suggest you start working on the blockages fast, because the power is about to get turned on…

Getting off to a bad start could kill Dreamland.

And it’s too big for this town to fail.

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