£47m Forge Island cinema project enters final act

FRIDAY, August 16, is the target date for £47 million Forge Island to open to the public, the Advertiser can reveal.
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The fully-let site’s new era – centred on the eight-screen cinema – is nearing after years in the making.

And developers have detailed how close it came to being potentially mothballed had Rotherham Council not stepped in to provide the full amount of funding.

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Raife Gale, senior development manager at main project partners Muse, said: “At the moment we’re working towards handing over to the Thistle Group and other tenants.

Forge Island development update - photos by Kerrie BeddowsForge Island development update - photos by Kerrie Beddows
Forge Island development update - photos by Kerrie Beddows

“It’s on programme, and we have got a target date of August 16, but the fit-out periods can vary, with the cinema being the longest one.”

The unique former supermarket site – standing between the River Don and South Yorkshire Navigation canal – has brought both challenges and opportunities.

“It’s in a floodplain, so the whole development is built on a podium,” said Mr Gale. “It’s going to flood, but it’s only going to be the car parking that will flood.

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“Another challenge was us getting on site. We went out to market for funding in April 2021, and there was strong interest. Since then, we had the mini-budget and the world was turned upside down. That private funding market wasn’t able to deliver the scheme.

Forge Island development update.Forge Island development update.
Forge Island development update.

“We sat down with the council and looked at alternatives.”

The funding model was switched to RMBC fully funding the scheme, and without this investment the whole thing could have been mothballed.

Mr Gale said: “We didn’t want to value engineer all the quality and design out of it, and this meant we didn’t have to.

“We work across the country, and at that time a lot of developments were just mothballed and haven’t been brought forward.

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“The fact we were able to is one of the things I’m most proud of, and it was thanks to the council.”

Another quirk of Forge Island has been designing where to site all the “back of house” sections – the non-public areas like deliveries and bins – because of the watery surroundings.

“That’s one of the challenges I’ve liked about this,” said Mr Gale. “It's essentially a 360-degree development.”

Forge Island has long been labelled a “key component” of RMBC’s town centre masterplan – but just how crucial will the popularity of cinema be for Rotherham?

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“It’s very important,” said council leader Cllr Chris Read. “But someone who has been very critical of this project all along got in touch and said: ‘This is your last roll of the dice.’ Actually, I think this is our first roll of the dice.

“We know about the changing nature of town centres, and this is for leisure, eating out, and it’s a huge step for Rotherham going in that direction.

“But it isn’t the be-all and end-all, and the markets will be the next big scheme.”

And when will RMBC be able to judge how much of a success Forge Island becomes?

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“Not immediately,” said Cllr Read. “Part of it will be people getting into new habits of using Forge Island, so it could be a couple of years before we are really able to say.

“We want people to come and have an afternoon or evening, doing something they’ve not been able to do here before.”

The provision of several new places to eat will also aim to address central Rotherham’s general lack of restaurants in recent years.

“If it’s not been great here before, we can help bring up that standard, definitely,” said Hamza Sayed, operations director for Thistle Group.

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The company has signed a deal to bring the Nando’s-like Casa Peri Peri, Japanese-Brazilian food fusion concept restaurant Estabulo Rodizio/Sakku Samba and charitable coffee shop Caffé Noor.

Mr Sayed added: “Estabulo will be more for people who have time, an hour or an hour-and-a-half, where Casa is more for a quicker meal.

“We see the strength in Forge Island. We’re looking at leisure complexes more because that’s where the money is, and it’s really interesting to see this investment when other towns are being allowed to decay.”

Independent restaurant chain The Rustic Pizza Co and burger, shake and dessert diner Cow & Cream complete the eateries line-up, in addition to the Arc cinema and 69-room Travelodge. About 100 jobs are being created, with recruitment under way.

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The new bridge from Corporation Street is several metres higher than the old one over to Tesco. It has been inspired by the Bailey Bridge, and will include a panel of some sort commemorating Rotherham engineering genius Sir Donald Bailey.

Meanwhile, the former Wilko site has been folded into the wider scheme – and has allowed better disabled access because the original design’s inclines were steeper.

And work on Riverside Gardens – landscaping at the Market Street end of Forge Island – is expected to start this summer.