When Prime Minister David Cameron visited Eastbourne in the aftermath of the devastating pier fire last summer and promised £2 million to boost the town’s tourist economy, the response of the townsfolk was something of a mixed bag.
Some praised the Tory government and welcomed the cash boost. After all the pier has always been the jewel in the south coast crown and the July 30 fire – which destroyed a third of the seafront structure including the iconic domed Blue Room – left locals and visitors devastated and pier traders without their livelihoods at the height of the summer.
Others saw the visit and cash pledge from the Prime Minister and Chancellor George Osborne as a cynical ploy to help boost votes in what is seen as a major target seat in the forthcoming May General Election.
But whatever the views, the money will soon be in the bank and in the months following the arson attack – although nobody has ever been charged and the police investigation continues – much work has been done behind the scenes preparing a business case as to what exactly the cash should be spent on.
Right from the outset the pier’s owners, formerly Cuerden Leisure and now Crown Entertainment Centres, said the building was insured and would be rebuilt so none of the cash will be spent on replacing anything destroyed on the pier.
Council officials and members of the Eastbourne Pier Action Committee, set up within hours of the blaze, met with civil servants from the Department of Communities and Local Government and came up with a wish list of how the money could be spent and how it would boost the town’s tourism economy.
Firstly, some of the £2 million will be paid back to the Pier Benevolent/Hardship Fund, also set up within days of the fire, which funded pop up shops on the promenade by the Carpet Gardens and opposite the Burlington Hotel so businesses which had occupied units on the pier could continue trading.
The Fishing Tackle shop, Pier Gift Shop and Pick n Mix Sweets were among those who were moved in to the temporary shops.
Approximately £100,000 has already been paid from the hardship fund to stall holders and displaced employees for the loss of their livelihoods.
Benevolent Fund money was also given to the family of Stephen Penrice, the 44-year-old workman from Cumbria who died after falling on to the beach from the pier while renovations began in the early days after the fire.
As demolition work on removing the burnt out iron structure of the Victorian Blue Room was completed after Christmas, officials revealed what other local projects would be supported with the government cash.
One of the smaller projects is a major repair and refurbishment of the Camera Obscura at the sea end. The original projector, which gives a 360 view of the seafront, was installed in Victorian times and is one of the earliest of its kind,
It was a popular attraction but fell into disuse in the 1960s.
The Camera Obscura was carefully restored in 2003 with a new stairway built to provide access to it but those stairs are no longer fit for purpose and work will involve restoring the east and west staircases leading up to the attraction to meet current standards.
There are also improvements planned to the camera itself.
A Christmas market is also in the pipeline.
Another initial idea and one that is already taking shape with artists’ impressions drawn up is for a sculpture acknowledging the pier fire and the response from the community.
The sculpture is the brainchild of tourism boss Carolyn Heaps who suggested a quantity of metal from the burnt out mangled frame of the Blue Room be set aside and used to create an iconic piece of art on the seafront.
She got the idea after seeing the cormorant installation at Newhaven which is seven foot tall and made of galvanised steel.
Various suggestions were put forward including a statue depicting a murmur of starlings, which are frequent visitors swarming above the pier and a family playing hide and seek on the beach.
Carolyn said, “It’s about making something beautiful out of something that looks so sad and was destroyed. I think it will be a fantastic way of showing the positivity of the whole town – and show that something good can come from that whole awful episode.”
A spokesperson at Eastbourne Borough Council said this week, “No design has been confirmed for the sculpture. However, we can confirm that some of the steel removed from the burnt out structure has been kept for this proposed use.”
Also put aside for use within the sculpture is hundreds of two pence pieces which were damaged in the fire, left charred and have no monetary value.
“It is money that came out of machines on the pier and was badly damaged because of the heat of the fire,” said pier manager Christos Stylianou.
“It will be good to see it put to good use. We are also delighted the Camera Obscura will benefit from the government cash, as once again it will prove to be a great tourist attraction. It has been closed for some years as the wooden staircase had started to rot. The money will allow us to build a new staircase to the east and west of the Camera Obscura and we will aim to get work underway as soon as possible.”
A history trail is another project on the cards aimed at celebrating the town’s diverse history, both for visitors and local residents, by making it more apparent and accessible.
That, says the council, will be achieved by using a variety of media to tell the story “on the street” using a series of pop-in history corners at key locations – each carrying a different theme supplemented by strategically sited information boards.
But the biggest share of the £2 million cash though is earmarked for a new signature restaurant at the Wish Tower.
The original Wish Tower Cafe and Sun Lounge – built as what was hoped to be a lasting memorial to the people of Eastbourne who suffered during the Second World War – was demolished in 2012 after becoming an out of date eyesore, run down and in need of repairs, and a structural survey revealed it would not be viable to refurbish the building and all but condemned it.
Eastbourne Borough Council, which owns the land, had leased it to a private operator and signed the demolition order promising redevelopment of the site. A temporary eatery was opened in July the following year and the plan was always to develop the site with a prestigious permanent restaurant along with a new memorial to those in Eastbourne who endured the many air raids of the Second World War and residents who remained in the town and survived.
Attempts to find a developer to work in conjunction with the council have proved fruitless so a large chunk – £1.2 million – of the government cash will be spent on building a signature restaurant and once again artists’ impressions have been drawn up.
Added to that a memorial will also be built close to the restaurant thanks to a long campaign by the Foyle family. Their ancestor Gilbert Foyle and his sons met half the construction cost of the original building as a memorial to the 174 Eastbourne civilians who died during the enemy bombing in World War Two.
Now that the government money is almost in the coffers, council officials are looking forward to the future.
Council leader David Tutt said, “I am delighted the Government department for communities and local government has given the green light to this money being approved. Now we can get these projects underway and deliver lasting benefits for Eastbourne.”
Things are moving on at Eastbourne Pier too after the last of the damaged steel structure was removed.
Panels with viewing holes have been in place for many months and last weekend engineers could be seen installing a sub structure to the floor which will soon be decked.
Christos said, “The whole area will be open decking and we can soon take down the hoarding and open the area up to the public. A number of architects have submitted plans and we are short listing. It’s all coming together.”