Shaftesbury Town Council will withdraw their ‘Project Belle’ bid for the former Budgens store on 31st October if there are no further developments. The decision could free-up £50,000 for improved tourism signage.
But as Alfred reports, not all councillors wanted to pull out of the process.
Since Budgens closed their Bell Street store in 2017, many residents have shared their opinions on what services or businesses they would like to occupy the empty supermarket. Some locals have questioned why Lidl didn’t purchase the empty former store, instead of buying the former Cattle Market. Documents on the sales agent Avison Young’s own website explain the reality – the size of the Bell Street supermarket ‘falls under Lidl’s requirement’.
With many national retailers facing increasingly tough trading conditions and halting expansion plans, the choice of chains prepared to put in a seven-figure bid to meet the vendor’s expectation appears limited.
Shaftesbury Town Council worked with a range of community experts in costing and then submitting an offer for the site on 2nd December 2018. Their plan mixed retail with business and community uses. That draft concept was required when they were working out budgets and costings, but the council’s Economic Development Advisory Committee had promised public consultation before determining exactly how the space would be used if the council bid had been accepted.
At Tuesday’s Full Council meeting, Shaftesbury Town Council Business Manager, Brie Logan, explained that two parties had outbid the council. The council hasn’t been told how much has been offered for the empty store, but Brie said that the agent was, “working with one particular party at levels considerably higher than the council bid.”
“There is the fundamental reality that our bid is, at this point, unlikely to be accepted by the receivers,” said Cllr Piers Brown. The Council could offer more cash if it wanted to, but the current bid went as high as it could without dipping heavily into reserves over the long term. Mayor Tim Cook reminded members that they couldn’t reveal financial data without going into private session. This does remain an active bid.
There was another complication for councillors to consider. The former North Dorset Council had offered £70,000 towards the ‘Project Belle’ bid. If the supermarket site offer failed or was withdrawn, a lesser amount, £50,000, could be used by Shaftesbury Town Council to enhance tourism signage. Dorset Council would withdraw this cash offer at end of April 2020, one year after the abolition of North Dorset Council. “There was a time limit on the grant funding from North Dorset District Council as it was dissolved last year. That money is going to expire this May,” said Deputy Mayor Piers Brown.
He didn’t want to jeopardise a ‘hard-fought for’ grant, as securing cash could be more difficult now. He explained that the new Dorset Council had 82 councillors competing for project funding, whereas the previous authority had 30 members.
Piers said that writing the bid had required a considerable amount of work by council staff and members of the community. This application had, “redefined what this council was willing to do to make this town a better place,” said Piers, as he addressed fellow councillors.
“Town councils have an image of stuffy committee rooms with people talking about ‘Vicar of Dibley’ stuff,” Cllr Brown told Alfred. “This project most certainly doesn’t fall into that category. It was ambitious. There was a noticeable amount of money being put aside to facilitate that, both from the former North Dorset District Council and from Shaftesbury Town Council. But it was also done in a way which was going to be financially sustainable, and that grant money from the Town Council would have been repaid so that it would stand on its own two feet.”
Piers said that the council had been asked to make, “its best and final offer,” and he wanted to move on. But Cllr Andy Hollingshead wanted to keep the bid on the table, suggesting that the council should, “hold its nerve” as the two higher bidders might pull out.
“We weren’t going to lose anything by waiting until the negotiations with the currently preferred bidders had reached a more mature phase. We don’t know what we don’t know. It may be that there are issues with the building. There may be asbestos. There may be problems with old refrigeration units, which add additional costs onto the purchase of it, which hasn’t yet been understood by the bidders. That may change the dynamics,” said Cllr Hollingshead.
Councillor Peter Yeo opposed pulling the bid, too. He challenged Piers’ assertion that the council had a, “one in a million” chance of success. “It’s a one in three chance. You have to be in it to win it,” cautioned Peter. “It’s a major project. If it comes off, we would have a great asset in our town. To withdraw our bid was very silly indeed, especially putting a time limit by the end of October. There are only two other bidders in the game. We’ve now pulled out. If the other two fall through, we’re not even in the game anymore,” he added.
Piers wasn’t so sure. He felt that should the higher bids not proceed, the agent might contact the Town Council, even if it had withdrawn its bid. “They will call us. They are bankers. They don’t feel shame,” Piers said. “If our bid turns out to be the most profitable for them, they’re going to be interested again. And if that is the case, obviously we’ll reassess it then.”
Councillor George Hall, the council’s liaison with the Visitor Experience Advisory Committee (VEAC), said he could see the merit in using that grant money in providing new tourism signs. He wanted the council to set and share its deadline with the agents. “We might as well have ‘one last hurrah’ at it,” George said. The majority of councillors voted to inform the agent that the council’s offer would come off the table on Halloween.
Although it looks like the bid hasn’t been successful, Piers says the overall experience has been positive. He compared the partnership between the community and council in producing this bid to an historic space mission. “This is a successful failure in the same vein as Apollo 13. This project has created a lot of useful information, useful energy that we need to now re-harness onto another project, which hopefully will be successful this time. As a council, I think it’s important that we try for the long shots, because sometimes it’s the long shots that pay off the most,” said Piers.
Andy Hollingshead also believes Project Belle has given the council a new perspective on what it could achieve. “I think there are other opportunities for something, maybe on a different scale in another premises within the centre of Shaftesbury. I don’t think we should lose sight of the opportunity. It’s something we should, as a council, consider very strongly,” he said.
Piers echoed that view. “That enthusiasm, I am keen that we harness. We can refocus onto a project which is equally positive for the town and is going to create the same economic benefits.”