The Wicksteed Charitable Trust, which owns Wicksteed Park, has launched a fundraising appeal in a bid to save the park in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Wicksteed Park is the oldest theme park on the UK mainland and one of the oldest in the world. It is owned by Wicksteed Charitable Trust but has been run by a wholly-owned subsidiary company, Wicksteed Park Ltd.
Wicksteed Park Ltd has been unable to avoid going into administration, with the loss of 48 permanent staff and 67 part-time and other jobs, due to the huge financial strain caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
Backed by the Wicksteed Charitable Trust a small group of employees has formed a new company, much reduced in size, to try and safeguard the future of the park.
The decision to call in administrators comes after the government announced the closure of the hospitality and leisure industry, hitting seasonal businesses particularly hard.
Oliver Wicksteed, chairman of the Wicksteed Charitable Trust, revealed how the park had fallen victim to an unprecedented and totally unforeseen set of circumstances. The coronavirus outbreak left the Trust with no income for months, apart from a small amount of car parking revenue, prompting it to ask people to help ensure that the park survives for visitors to enjoy during next year’s centenary year and beyond.
He said: “We are all devastated by what has happened and the effect this will have on our staff, their families and our visitors.
“We fully appreciate the effect this decision will have on staff members who have already been through months of uncertainty and difficulty due to Covid-19 and we are working hard to ensure they have access to the support and advice they need at this time.
“We are working hard to enable the park to continue but the reality is that without urgent significant support Wicksteed Park will not survive as we know it.”
The Charity has said it will endeavour to continue funding the opening of the park and Pavilion so that people can still enjoy this important local amenity whilst exercising and also to appreciate the open space which is crucial to physical and mental wellbeing.
The Charity has also pledged to honour any bookings for forthcoming events as well as annual passes and will endeavour to retain functions and shows in the park Pavilion as soon as government guidelines allow and it is practical.
Oliver Wicksteed said: “The new company, funded by the Trust, is a much streamlined business aimed at getting the park through to next spring when it can hopefully start to re-open fully but we need people’s help, support and understanding in order to try and make that happen.
“The costs of the old business were crippling and could not be sustained with the huge loss of revenue already suffered this year. Even if park rides opened in July, the costs of social distancing measures and the reduced capacity at which the park would have had to operate, would have meant it was unlikely to be financially viable.”
The Charity has invested millions in recent years to secure a sustainable future for the park. Mr Wicksteed said that this level of investment had affected profitability over the last two years and that, coupled with the prospect of no profitable trading for a whole financial year, had meant the Government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS) was not an option.
He said that the company would not have been able to afford the repayments on a huge bank loan whilst maintaining charitable output such as free access to playgrounds and parkland.
“There has been no meaningful Government support for charities such as ours (apart from the Government furlough scheme).”
He acknowledged that even with the furlough scheme the company had still needed a substantial amount of additional money each month simply to continue operating the country park alone, even without the its rides and attractions. Mr Wicksteed added: “We have been overwhelmed by messages of support received from people across the country during the current crisis and would like to thank people for their continued backing and loyalty.
“The green space access that we have provided during this crisis has been crucial for people’s mental health and wellbeing.
“But ultimately, Wicksteed Park is a private park which costs a great deal of money to maintain if we are to continue to open for people to use free of charge, as we have for the last 99 years.
“The Trust receives no regular external financial support or public funding unlike other national or council owned parks, but still makes a contribution to the local economy of at least £11million each year.
“We now need people, not least the Government, to recognise all we have done for the many millions of people who need our park and our work supporting the community.
“The sacrifices that people are having to make during the current crisis are extraordinary and in some ways Wicksteed Park and its future are nowhere near the top of people’s priorities, as they become ill, lose loved-ones and struggle to make ends meet financially.
“But millions of people across the country and generations of families love Wicksteed Park and have scores of happy memories made here.
“It is a touchstone in their lives and a representation of the fun times they have had – and when the country comes out of the other side of this crisis, as it inevitably will, it will be one of the places that people will want to return to as a sign that normality has returned.
“The park has relied on income generated by Wicksteed Park Ltd as well as charitable donations, car parking charges and, on occasion, the sale of land to help balance the books.
“More than 400,000 of the 850,000 visits to the park each year generate no revenue at all because we offer free access to support the local community and improving physical and mental wellbeing.
“However, if we want it to stay for many millions of people in the future to enjoy then we need to find a way to protect and preserve it.”
The Wicksteed Charitable Trust has a JustGiving page: www.justgiving.com/wicksteedcharitabletrust