HUNDREDS of people gathered to bid their final farewells to Darlington Arts Centre, which will close its doors for the last time tomorrow.

Families, students, and long-standing members of the centre joined together for a 12-hour farewell party to celebrate and share their memories of the building, which has become the heart of Darlington’s arts scene.

Since opening in 1982, the arts centre has welcomed nearly 250 performances every year. But, 30 years on, the final curtain will be drawn after the centre fell victim to council spending cuts.

John Dean, a member of the campaign group, Darlington for Culture, which fought to save the centre, said he was disappointed the day had come to say goodbye.

He said: “It is like watching an old friend die. I am so sad to see the arts centre close, especially as we have fought so hard to save it.”

As well as putting on hundreds of theatre performances every year, the centre also became a meeting point for dozens of creative groups and organisations.

Bonnie Davies is a project manager at the Open Arts Studio, which uses art to improve mental health and well being.

After using the arts centre as a base for many years, her organisation, like many other groups, is having to relocate.

“I am very sad it is closing, as is everyone else here,” she said, with tears in her eyes.

“We are trying to continue our work at our new location at The Bridge, in Yarm Road, but it is still very sad.”

As well as being the heart of creativity and culture in Darlington, the arts centre became a place where new friendships were cemented, and community groups were formed.

The Tees Valley Jazzmen were the first jazz band to perform at the arts centre, and, as they played throughout the morning of the farewell party, they were also one of the last.

Gavin Belton, organiser of the band, said: “We are feeling very sad – it is truly the end of an era.

“We played here for the first time in the Garden Bar nearly 40 years ago. Now me and my brother, Keith, are the only two original members of the band that are left, but we are hoping it will keep going after the arts centre has closed.”

Pegged onto ribbons in the foyer were messages of goodbye from hundreds of people who had used the arts centre over the years, including one from David Lindsey, theatre manager at Middlesbrough Theatre. He wrote: “So sad about the arts centre – we can ill-afford to be losing arts facilities, particularly ones that serve the community so well at this time.”

Before it became the arts centre, the building housed Darlington College of Education, which opened in 1867 and closed in 1978.

Andrew Goldstraw, 59, from Catterick, in North Yorkshire, lived at the college from 1971 to 1973 and worked at the Garden Bar.

He said: “I had some wonderful times in that building.

The atmosphere is perfect for the creative groups that are based here, and that atmosphere will be hard to find anywhere else.”

Nick Wallis, Darlington Borough Council’s cabinet member for leisure, said: “I am sorry that we are in the position that, due to budget cuts, the arts centre is closing. The venue has offered many happy times over the years to a great many people.

“I am pleased so many groups, clubs and societies have managed to find new premises at venues across the borough. I wish them the very best in their future.”

As one last goodbye, a number of musical groups, including Darlington Orchestra, will perform at the arts centre tomorrow.

Graham Foster, a member of the jazz club, whose acts will also be performing, said: “We would like everyone to come to the final ever show at the arts centre tomorrow.

“Let’s go out with a bang and not a whimper.”