The troubles of West Bromwich's ambitious cultural flagship, The Public, represent the final agony of Britain's Millennium fever, writes Terry Grimley...

While I can't say I told them so, I can't say I was entirely surprised, either, at the news that The Public, Sandwell's £52 million cultural palace, has gone into administration.

Cost overruns are hardly unheard of with big capital schemes, but what is more disturbing in this case is a feeling that a well-intentioned project to raise skills and aspirations in one of the country's most deprived areas may have lost its way.

As The Public's long gestation period has slowly unfolded, I have found it increasingly difficult to grasp exactly what this outlandish multicoloured box designed by Will Alsop is supposed to be. Yes, it would have a cafe and restaurant, it would house exhibitions and small start-up businesses, and the the top floor would offer fantastic views across the Black Country.

But exactly how the people of West Bromwich would interact with it and adopt it as an inspiring focus of their town's rebirth, particularly with Alsop's very specific architectural repertoire of ramps and "pods", was something that remained beyond my imagination.

Not that I had any desire to see it fail. I wanted to believe that the proof would be in the opening, but for quite a while now I've been keeping my head down and my fingers crossed.

Yet it all seemed so different when the project, originally called c/PLEX, was launched more than a decade ago. It was rooted in Jubilee Arts, a community arts project which had served West Bromwich for 30 years, specialising in giving community groups access to professional digital media.

The long-serving chief executive, Sylvia King, had started out in 1974 driving portable street theatre in a double-decker bus around West Brom's estates. Sylvia is a fiery visionary, dedicated to raising the horizons of local people. Surely someone with such a down-to-earth background could always be relied upon to keep a reality check?

The first proposal to re-house Jubilee Arts in state-of-the art-premises, by original architects Rivington Street Studio, was a modest low-rise scheme on the periphery of the town centre. If this had been pursued it would probably have opened several years ago and would today be serving the community well.

But these were times of high and seductive ambition. In the late 1990s three factors -the greater than expected initial success of the National Lottery, the impending Millennium and Labour's victory in the 1997 General Election - combined to persuade many of us that early 21st century Britain was going to be the New Jerusalem.

We would bathe in frothy cappuccino, visit art galleries designed by internationallyrenowned architects and at last become truly European in our appreciation of our transformed cities. No wonder Britain became more excited about the Millennium than any of its European neighbours.

As we all know, this bandwagon swiftly met its nemesis in the shape of the Millennium Dome, while the sudden flood of loadsamoney into arts infrastructure long starved of capital investment had some results as disastrous as you might expect of a starving man gorging himself at a banquet.

Remember Sheffield's short-lived National Centre for Popular Music, a project where the extraordinary building designed by Branson Coates left nothing in the budget for the exhibits, so that the inside was less exciting than your local HMV record shop?

And on the subject of lottery-funded white elephants, who can forget Birmingham's apparently pointless Millennium Point and its much inferior replacement of the popular Museum of Science & Industry?

Another Black Country project which paralleled The Public was Walsall's New Art Gallery. Only a few years after a modest scheme to convert a Victorian villa across the road from the previous Museum & Art Gallery failed to take off, the climate had been so transformed by the lottery that only a huge free-standing building would do.

At least the gallery was successfully completed and initially brought great national and international acclaim to Walsall. This project was also driven by a charismatic individual, the director Peter Jenkinson, and it was only after his departure to set up the Creative Part-nerships programme that financial realities came home to roost and the gallery's sustainability came to be seriously questioned.

After a long delay a new director is now in place at the New Art Gallery and with the imminent development of the adjoining Town Wharf site, it may yet prove an effective component in Walsall's regeneration.

Whether the same will prove true of The Public is another question. It is difficult to see what alternative now exists to filling the cash shortfall from whatever source can be found and pressing on to completion. Then it is up to the organisation to demonstrate its value to local people.

Though that era of late 90s civic cultural ambition now seems a very long time ago, The Public is a direct legacy of it. It is one of two major projects (the other is the redevelopment of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre) for which the Arts Council reserved money when the shutters went up on capital arts spending.

If, as it seemed at the time, the Arts Council had some reservations about putting a large amount of cash into the centre of West Bromwich, the decision was eased by the criticism it faced over accusations that London enjoyed dis-proportionate favour.

Ironically, reactions yesterday seemed to suggest there may have been some wishful thinking about the extent of support for The Public. It would be doubly ironic if the role of culture in urban regeneration was diminished because of past over-ambition.