WHILE Cardiff's Wales Millennium Centre is preparing for its star-studded opening night and lining up acts to attract the crowds, Newport's theatre and arts centre is way behind.

And that's despite the fact that the Newport centre's opening date is before its larger rival.

The £104m Wales Millenni-um Centre is a key part of the transformation of Card-iff Bay, and is due to open in the winter of 2004.

Likewise, the £13m arts centre on the banks of Newport's River Usk, which will also house the medieval ship, is a linchpin in the vision to regenerate the city. And it is due to open months before, in the autumn of 2004.

But while Cardiff has a dedicated team of almost 20 people preparing for opening day, and has started signing acts up for its 2004 and 2005 programmes, Newport has yet to employ anyone to run our centre.

Newport council says it is starting to recruit - but Newport East Assembly Member John Griffiths says city chiefs must get organised and get on with preparations for the centre's opening immediately.

Mr Griffiths said: "Cardiff's centre is, of course, much bigger and has resident companies like the Welsh National Opera which makes a difference.

"But if Newport is to take full advantage of this opportunity to make a huge leap forward for arts provision in the city, we need to be prepared.

"The sooner, and the more thoroughly, preparations are made,the better.

"It's time to get organised and get on with full preparations for how things will work when the centre is opened."

Honorary president and founder of Newport's New Venture Players, Terry Underwood, agrees.

He said: "The fact that work on the arts centre has been delayed so many times means that the people of Newport have become a little weary of the whole project.

"So we need to make sure that everything is on track and that the opening is a big success.

"A committee should be formed to see through the launch, made up of local people who really care about theatre."

Cardiff Millennium chief executive Judith Isherwood, who previously ran the Sydney Opera House, joined the Cardiff team three months ago to start preparations for the opening night in winter 2004.

Ms Isherwood said: "We are recruiting extra staff to focus on really important things like sorting out a programme of events.

"We will be approaching a whole range of international stars to be involved in the opening celebrations.

"We'll announce details in September.

"We've got a wide range of shows on the drawing board that we would like to put into the opening year.

"We are advanced with our organisation and we are working flat out. "Opening seems a long way off but it's a short space of time."

Newport's theatre and arts centre was delayed by more than two months after the discovery of the remains of a medieval ship on the site in June last year.

Work was thrown into turmoil when the 15th century ship was found, and the timbers were recovered, ready to be preserved and displayed.

But Newport city council insists its plans are still on schedule.

A spokeswoman said: "A team of six marketing and programme staff are now being recruited for Newport's new theatre and arts centre.

"The centre is on track to open in autumn 2004 with an exciting and diverse range of activities that will appeal to the whole community."

PICTURE: Consturction is well under way on Cardiff's Millennium Centre