Jonathan Schofield says there have been problems but the venue will get there

“This is all private money,” said Tim Leiweke with an expansive hand gesture. “We put up all the money privately. The taxpayers didn’t put a thing in. We didn’t ask the tax payers to put in a thing.”

Leiweke was clever with this Saturday 20 April launch event speech at Co-op Live, the £350m (and climbing), 23,500 capacity arena in east Manchester. 

The American boss of the huge US venue operator Oak View Group (OVG), was witty and focussed as he rallied the troops, making sure he was generous with praise for the behind the scenes people, the builders, the venue staff. He gushed over the involvement of the Co-op. He handsomely applauded the city and its governance.

Rescheduling gives us the extra time we need to continue testing thoroughly. This is vital to satisfy the rigorous set of guidelines and protocols that are necessary for a venue of this size.

Leiweke told us how Co-op Live is going to be a carbon neutral arena, the second in the world and the only one in the UK and Europe. 80% of everything you eat and drink in here, he said, will come from this region.

Some people whooped, some people were born to whoop. 

Manchester City Council leader Bev Craig was up next. 

“The closer you get, the tougher it gets,” she said cautiously and then continued with, “Tim hasn’t talked about the many hundreds of thousands of pounds that have been donated to community groups in this patch and will be for years to come. He hasn’t talked about the opportunities in creating jobs for local people who get to be part of something special.”

Apparently £1m a year will be donated to community and other initiatives across the city and country. 

More whooping. 

The speakers all stressed this was a test event. Leiweke had concluded his speech with some carefully chosen words: “Thank you for being patient with us tonight. It won’t be perfect. Bear with us as we get through the growing pains here.”

And there were growing pains. 

And then some.

2024 04 23 Coop Live Launch Exterior
Crowds queue for Co-op Live Image: Confidentials

Capacity had already been reduced at the test event from around 11,000 to 4,000 at the last minute via emails and WhatsApp upsetting the excluded.  

There were problems with some safety aspects particularly with compliance with fire regulations, a lot of it down to power supply problems. The building was very evidently unfinished. Sources were saying how they were probably a couple of months behind. Others thought the difference between health and safety and regulatory cultures of the UK and the US had caused issues. 

On Monday the decision came to not go ahead with Peter Kay’s opening gigs this week, on Tuesday and Wednesday. They have been rescheduled for next week although at present Saturday’s Black Keys gig with a 10,000 capacity is set to go ahead. 

Co-op Live said on Monday: "It is critical to ensure we have a consistent total power supply to our fully electric sustainable venue, the completion of which is a few days behind. Rescheduling gives us the extra time we need to continue testing thoroughly. This is vital to satisfy the rigorous set of guidelines and protocols that are necessary for a venue of this size."

There then followed the usual screams of offence and howls of derision from social media. Other media had a right go at Co-op Live too, one local magazine labelled the whole thing a ‘shitshow’. The MEN went heavy as well with a feature concentrating on the trouble and the dissatisfaction in the run up to the test launch.  

This has been largely unreasonable. True, it wasn’t all right on the night but I can scarcely remember any major scheme not having problems. I recall the rush to open the Lowry at the Quays back in 2000 with on opening night, dangling cables, wet paint on the walls and all hell breaking loose behind the scenes; Lord knows what last minute safety debates were taking place.

2023 10 18 Aviva Opens Exterior
The late-running Aviva Studios, now coming into its own Image: Confidentials

Factory International at Aviva Studios, over-budget and very overdue, was in no way completed for Manchester International Festival last year and still needs work after the official opening in autumn. Opening night problems have been manifest and manifold across so many venues and projects across the world.

Publicly funded schemes appear the main culprits for running behind schedule and over budget but they have different imperatives. Co-op Live is a private initiative and inevitably the commercial need to start earning is more urgent. Of course, safety is paramount and while OVG has been hasty in rushing the opening then at least the agencies have stepped in from the fire service through the police to the City to correctly say slow down and let’s get this right. That’s what they’re there for. That’s the system working. 

It’s not good at all that people for the Peter Kay gigs have been disappointed, no doubt some people who have paid for tickets for the latter event this week won’t be able to make next week. Yet, Co-op Live will get it right either or sooner or later. 

When it does it will be a magnificent beast of a thing.

It sits by the Ashton Canal in three great tiers of black like some rooted to earth spaceship. The exterior can be illuminated in part which should animate night gigs.

2024 04 23 Coop Live Launch Interior
Inside Co-op Live Image: Confidentials

The architects are Populous Holdings (they designed Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium). Declan Sharkey of Populous was keen to underline some of the goodies about Co-op Live at the test launch and talked a lot about the main auditorium or ‘bowl’. 

He said: “The bowl is the heart of the building and the idea was intimacy so we’ve done a huge amount of work to provide an immersive experience for both the fan and the artist. The tier at the rear of the bowl is up to 23.5m closer to the stage than comparable venues to give that intimacy.”

He talked about the 41 bespoke restaurants and market places, the nine club spaces. He talked about the relationship with the public realm outside, the creation of a walking route from Piccadilly. 

He ended saying the whole space had been “designed for fans, bands and brands”, which was a fine bit of cheesy marketing speak. 

For the record the live acts at the test launch were excellent. The climax came with a jaunty Rick Astley proving he’s an all-round entertainer. Importantly the sound quality was excellent, the visuals impressive. 

Co-op Live will get there. For now it certainly has ‘growing pains’, but as Peter Kay said about the cancellation: “I know how disappointing this will be for everyone with tickets - but obviously, it's a brand-new venue and it's important that everything is finished and safe for full capacity audiences.”

Ultimately, I didn’t put a penny into Co-op Live. Unless you’re Oak View Group, Sheik Mansour or Harry Styles, none of us did. But we’ll benefit as a city. As I said on Saturday; it’s not ready, but massively impressive.

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