A CHURCH has pulled out buying the crumbling New Empire theatre in Southend - despite a £400,000 price drop.

The theatre was on the market for £1.15m, but owner Richard Shea has just slashed the price to £750,000.

Despite the drop the Southend Vineyard Church, which won planning permission to use the theatre as a place of worship at weekends, says it is still not interested.

The change of heart is down to the cost of renovating the dilapidated building, esimated as in excess of £2million, with church bosses saying it was in a much worse state than previously thought.

Sam Vincett, who runs the church with her husband Andy from its temporary base at Southend High School for Boys each Sunday, said: “We have pulled out because we believed it would be far too much work.

“We had someone look around it and discovered it was far worse than we thought. It has been broken into and flooded and people sleep rough in there.
“We had been given a cost to refurbish it as up to £2million, but that was before the further deterioration.

“We felt it was out of our range and that we could have built somewhere for what it might have cost us.
“We are still looking for new premises.”

The church would have allowed the building to be used by community and theatre groups during the week.
Instead it has become a magnet for rough sleepers and vandals, a sad decline for the iconic theatre.

The theatre was run by Julie Robertson and a band of helpers as a community theatre for ten years until summer 2008 when a row over rent led to Mr Shea cancelling the lease. It has lain empty ever since.

Mrs Robertson said: “It is such a shame that it is going to rack and ruin.
“It has been empty for so long and the community has been without a wonderful facility for all that time.

“While we were there we maintained it and paid £25,000 a quarter rent.
“We even asked for an extension to find our rent one Christmas and Mr Shea refused even to meet us.

“Since then he has lost out on £100,000 and the building is crumbling. If he had let us stay for the four years remaining on our lease, he could have had all that rent and a going concern to put on the market now.”

THE Empire Theatre opened in 1896 and was later run as a cinema – first the Rivoli and later the ABC.

After the twin-screen ABC cinema closed in 1997, businessman Richard Shea bought it and leased the building to the New Empire Theatre company through his company, Shea Properties.

In 2008, a rent row led to Mr Shea cancelling the lease, and the community theatre group moved out.
A year later, Shea Properties put forward proposals to use the theatre as a children’s entertainment centre, but these were shelved and the property put on the market for £1.15million.

In June a cinema operator and a leisure group were said to be keen on taking over the building but a deal wasn’t completed.
The Southend Vineyard Church first expressed an interest in taking over the theatre 18 months ago.

An application to use it as a place of worship was rubber-stamped by councillors in June. Now the group have pulled out.