Who knew a debate about an art gallery could almost end in fisticuffs?

That's what seemed to be on the cards during a recent BBC news report as two local fishermen squared up to each other over whether the new Jerwood Gallery on the beachfront at Hastings would be a good or bad thing for the town.

The £4m venue, which will house the Jerwood Foundation's collection of 20th- and 21st-century British art, is being built on a former coach park on the seafront and is due to open next summer. But the project has divided the locals: a vigorous "No" campaign reveals that not all residents think it will bring prosperity to the ailing Sussex resort.

While the gallery is being built with private money, the redevelopment of this part of the seafront, the Stade, will cost about £10m, largely out of public coffers. The opposition is angry about the fact that the Jerwood Foundation, a private arts charity, isn't paying for the land and has been granted exemption from local taxes.

The "No" campaigners also believe the site's former role as a car park had more earning potential, and that the gallery will have a negative impact on local traders and the fishing community. The council's recent decision to allow the gallery to charge admission has poured fuel on to this blazing fire (which has already seen the burning of a Jerwood effigy).

Jerwood says the gallery will be "an active and exciting catalyst in the regeneration of Hastings" and it hopes that the venue will attract more than 100,000 visitors a year. A feasibility study of the whole redevelopment of the Stade, commissioned by the local authorities, anticipates that more than 100 jobs will be created and the new space will generate £10m annually for the local economy. The town council seems sure of the gallery's benefits and has been keen not to lose it to a neighbour. Other locals have literally rallied in support of Jerwood.

Art galleries are certainly gaining in popularity as potential saviours of depressed seaside towns, with the benefit felt by the Cornish town of St Ives after the Tate moved in a favourite point of reference for those championing the art effect. Hastings isn't alone in hosting a bold new venture of this kind. Just along the south-east coast in Kent, kiss-me-quick Margate hopes the new Turner Contemporary, due to open on 16 April 2011, will bring a change in its fortunes.

For the out-of-town visitor, art by the sea provides an attractive excuse to escape to the coast and the Jerwood Gallery is sure to attract new interest in Hastings. Most locals will probably come to like it in time, too. The problem isn't the gallery itself. In part, it's about the familiar story of people feeling they're not being listened to by their politicians.

But more than that, it's about the high-risk strategy of pinning hopes for renewed prosperity on one grand project. Like every depressed town in Britain, near or far from the coast, government investment in housing, jobs and public services is the only real way to build a sustainable future.

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