While problems with South Parade Pier continue to mount, a group of dedicated individuals are working hard behind the scenes to ensure its survival.
The South Parade Trust is a community organisation that aims to take over the Southsea venue and transform it into a huge success.
It is spearheaded by Leon Reis, who was spurred on to make a difference after Joanna’s nightclub burned to the ground around two years ago.
‘It started when Harry Redknapp’s building burned down over the road from the pier,’ he explains.
‘Like a lot of people in town, I was outraged that it happened.
‘And as a result of that, I started becoming a more active part of the East Southsea Neighbourhood Forum, which I was already a committee member of.’
‘At the time, Fred Nash and Dawn Randall (the pier’s owners) were talking about doing up the pier, and I spoke to them because I wanted to know if we could help them.
‘I felt it was in everyone’s interests that the pier was sorted out.’
Following a neighbourhood forum meeting about 18 months ago where 170 guests voted in support of the community providing help, Leon formed what was then called The People’s Pier.
It later became The South Parade Trust to avoid confusion with the owners, who had started to run the pier under a similar name.
Leon says: ‘That’s a great name because we are not just interested in the pier.
‘The constitution of our company states we are interested in good works and fixing and looking after the seafront.’
The trust has grown from a loyal band of 40 to 50 supporters to an army of nearly 1,000 followers from across the city and beyond.
Leon, the trust’s chairman, has a committee made up of 14 to 15 professionals who have experience working in architecture, corporate finance, engineering and with insolvent companies.
And looking forward, Leon hopes to launch a recruitment drive next year that aims to see its membership soar to 10,000.
‘We believe we can do that because people are really, really concerned about the pier,’ he says.
‘It’s just a case of finding the time to do it.
‘I couldn’t have done all of this without my committee and the members.
‘We are able to sit in a room with anyone and we can argue our point because we have got the right people on board.’
‘We were worried about a number of issues last year.
‘We were worried about safety at the pier.
‘The pier was then shut to the public, and I started talking to Dawn and Fred.
‘The conversations weren’t always congenial.’
Any tensions between both parties have eased because they are locked in talks over the possibility of the trust taking over.
As previously reported, it means the trust is now in a position to apply for grants that will pay for the cost of ownership, a structural survey and initial repairs.
Leon says £250,000 would need to be raised initially, and up to £15m may be required in the long run to make the pier a serious business.
Though the trust doesn’t have a pot of cash ready to use, it’s taking its fundraising options seriously.
Leon says the first lot of money could be raised if the trust managed to get 250 people to donate £1,000, or 1,000 people to chip in £250 each. And as previously reported, the trust has launched a drive to sell prints of the pier in the style of Van Gogh, Salvador Dali, David Hockney, Katsushika Hokusai, Roy Lichtenstein, Edvard Munch and Andy Warhol, and proceeds are going towards the takeover bid.
‘There are significant plans in place to raise money,’ Leon says.
‘We know how to go about getting money.’
This week, Leon met officials from English Heritage officials about how they can contribute, and parties like The Heritage Lottery Fund will also be approached.
The trust was given a £4,000 interest-free loan from the Parity Trust last month, and that cash is being used to fund trips to conferences to learn how others have made piers a success, and to hire a consultant who was influential in Hastings Pier being saved.
‘Our vision is that local people will have a say about what goes on the pier,’ Leon says.
‘What we want to do is the things people want in accordance with what we are getting in the form of top business advice.
‘They may want the Sydney Opera House built there, or want the nuts and bolts of what’s there retained, or something in between.’
Leon says he would love to move the arcade at the front somewhere else and put a modern, family-friendly cafe in its place.
There could be an emphasis on promoting music and community rooms and video and dance studios could be introduced.
The back of the pier could be used for weddings.
But at the same time the trust wants to keep some of the things that made the pier a success to begin with.
‘We want to keep the sense of funfair,’ Leon says.
‘So that means keeping the rides and coin machines and amusement arcades.
‘This thing about pier’s being outdated is absolute nonsense. A pier is a special place.
‘It’s a place where you can go and look back at the land and in the case of South Parade Pier, it’s one of the most beautiful places in terms of its features and views anywhere in the coast of Britain.’
Some people would say the trust is taking a huge risk – the pier’s electricity supply has been shut down for the time being because the owners have failed to pay bills backdating to December last year.
‘It’s shut, there’s no electricity and if you just look at it, you’ll see that it’s falling apart,’ Leon says.
‘But it would be such a waste not to do something with it.
‘It’s a place of magic, and it’s got “location, location, location” about it.
‘I have got 11 grandchildren, they need to get up that pier and have fun and I want to go up there at a lunchtime and have lunch and have a glass of wine with a smile on my face.’
THE South Parade Trust is modelled on another community group which fought to save Hastings Pier.
Leon Reis has been inspired by the work of Jess Steele, treasurer of the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust.
She helped to secure £11.4m in Heritage Lottery funding this year, which helped to save the pier. The trust had spent four years getting Hastings Borough Council to make a compulsory purchase order.
In the end the local authority bought the pier before handing it over.
Work to restore the attraction to its former glory is under way and it is expected to be completed by the spring of 2015.
Beforehand, it had been left derelict after years of neglect and because of damage caused by a fire.
Leon says: ‘Jess was a crucial player in helping to save Hastings Pier and she helped to write a business plan for it.’
She’s been hired as a consultant for the trust and her expertise is helping it make crucial decisions on what steps to take.
‘She is an amazing asset to use,’ Leon says.
The trust has also taken advice from Angus Meek Architects in recent times, which designed and built the Grand Pier in Weston-super-Mare.
The building there before was destroyed by fire in 2008, and the pier’s owners Kerry and Michelle Michael had to start again from scratch and spend £38m rebuilding it.
Leon says: ‘Next year, we would be extremely disappointed if we didn’t own South Parade Pier and start repairing it.
‘The only other thing we would need money for if we owned it would be for insurance. That is going to cost £100,000 a year.’