IT was standing room only at a public meeting for a new multi-million pound arts facility being proposed in Dorchester last night.

Hundreds packed the Corn Exchange in the county town alongside Lord Julian Fellowes to hear more about the project in Brewery Square and offer their support.

The Dorchester Maltings is being put forward as the 'arts at the heart' of Dorset's county town.

Chairman of The Maltings Arts and Dorchester Arts Louise Sheaves and artistic director of Dorchester Arts Mark Tattersall addressed residents with a presentation of the project which hopes to bring a £4.6 to £5 million boost to the local economy.

The presentation unveiled plans for a 450 seated auditorium, a studio space for smaller shows, cafe/bar under the cones of the Maltings, meeting rooms and a commercial annexe.

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But the plans come with a £8.8 million price tag, and a ticking clock to raise the funds.

Louise Sheaves said: "We have submitted an application for 106 funding. We know if we get that it will really kick start the project. We feel we're in the best position we have ever been in."

The chairman said the project has 18 months to raise the funds as that is when the opportunity to exercise an option agreement to buy the building in Brewery Square for £1 will run out.

The team behind the project have worked with Artsreach to produce a feasibility study for the plans.

Louise Sheaves said: "There is a clear demand for an arts facility. But we know we could lose it if we don't get enough money."

Mr Tattersall shared the vision with residents with a comprehensive and passionate presentation.

He said: "We want this to be something that is relevant to everyone in this town - a hub that brings everyone together. In these times where there aren't things that draw us together, I think this is really important."

He added that the building will maintain the "wonderful heritage features" and "tell a little bit of a story" of the brewery and town.

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He admitted the building "has its issues" as it is a listed building, but the new simplified design would enhance what is already there.

Mr Tattersall said: "We want people to use this building in many different ways – no one should be excluded from this building.

"We know this is achievable. But we know public subsidy is getting more and more difficult to find and we don't want to be dependent and subsidies junkies."

The plans have been costed in detail 'from demolition works to soap dispensers', and will cost £2847 per square metre to complete.

The brick work will be preserved and roofing, windows will be triple glazed and the roof soundproofed.

Mr Tattersall said Charcoalblue, the company behind the building designs are experts in "getting it right".

He said: "People these days have very high expectations and as art venues we need to keep up and provide good nights out."

It's hoped that funds for the project will be raised from a variety of sources, including Section 106, West Dorset District Council, Dorchester Town Council and from national bodies such as Arts Council England as well as foundations and trusts and public fundraising.

Mr Tattersall said: "It's a major process. We are not reinventing the wheel – this is the way funding is brought. We are very confident after the first funding that other funds will flow."

Lord Julian Fellowes was also present to hear Mr Tattersall describe the project as a "viable thriving, accessible, welcoming venue open daytime and evening throughout the year."

Mr Fellowes said: "I'm really here to proclaim my enthusiasm. This has gone from a pipe dream to a realistic project. That in itself makes my heart sing.

"The truth is we need to have a place where we can see what there is to offer. What I really like is there is something for everyone.

"This is what we need in the town, a proper destination performance space. It's just exactly what we need – and now to pull together as a town to get this done."

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After the presentation, residents asked questions and raised concerns about parking, a space for visual arts, soundproofing and how green the building would be.

But most took it as an opportunity to proclaim their support.

Councillor David Taylor said: "Congratulations to you tonight and the team for an outstanding introduction."

John Fiori, owner of The Horse with the Red Umbrella in Dorchester said: "As chair of Dorchester BID I just wanted to say if you do need anything, we as a body will do our most to give you full support."

One Poundbury resident highlighted that a large portion of the Section 106 funds are raised by Poundbury, and hoped the new project will see an end to 'the years of them and us' – as much of the audience was made up of residents from Poundbury, which led to cheers in the crowd.

She said: "We have always had a big economic impact in Dorchester. We are part of everything here."

Louise Sheaves asked the audience to help spread the word for the project, volunteer, and support Dorchester Arts. There will be a fundraiser on March 3.

Jacky Thorne, a local resident and fundraiser for Dorchester Arts said: "We were astounded at the turnout from such a wide range of people from the area. It's obviously something close to peoples hearts."

Mr Tattersall added: "It's an exciting time for Dorchester and it's becoming such a hub for arts and heritage.

"We just need to get these funds in place."