Harrogate Borough Council says it will consider community bids for Crescent Gardens after the collapse of its controversial £75 million deal with developer Adam Thorpe but added it was not in favour of simply creating a new ‘white elephant’.
As preparations continue to put the former civic headquarters back on the market, the council’s deputy leader said turning the site into a “block of flats” was a risk to avoid.
But, with the launch of a new 12-week tendering process now imminent, Coun Graham Swift, Harrogate Borough Council deputy leader and cabinet member for resources, enterprise and economic development, said said a much larger number of “reputable companies” had already expressed in bidding for the site than last time round.
He said: “A large number of companies have already expressed an interest in Crescent Gardens, involving a mix of residential use and entertainment and leisure.
“Many of them are highly reputable companies.
“The last time we were not in a position to guarantee an exit date because we were still in the building.
“Because the building is empty this has taken the risk out of it for potential developers who need to know when they can crack on with the actual work. That has generated stronger interest than before.”
After rejecting calls by Harrogate’s opposition Lib Dem leader Coun Pat Marsh for an investigation into the collapse of the deal after the developer’s company ATP (Crescent Gardens) Ltd failed to meet the deadline to submit a valid planning application, Coun Swift said the council had always wanted to balance commercial interest with the public good at this prime location at the heart of Harrogate’s civic history.
Lessons had been learnt and there would be firm guidelines set out for every potential bidder in a process which is unlikely to finish before the end of this year.
Coun Swift said: “We are going to set out a clear set of criteria for anyone wishing to tender with financial and commercial components as well as social and amenity.
“We are already working with significant property consultants who are experts in this area.
“We will be insisting on a non-returnable deposit to make sure, whatever happens, the cost to the tax payer is more than covered just like the last time.”
The council has been under pressure from interested citizens and groups such as Harrogate Civic Society to give priority to public interests in the Crescent Gardens area as a whole.
Coun Swift said the council was open to any and all good ideas but issued a strong message that the public purse must not be put in jeopardy.
He said: “The biggest risk with Crescent Gardens is someone coming along who just wants to turn it into a block of flats. But it costs us money to keep and run public buildings.
“If nobody uses them, they become useless white elephants. The Royal Hall sits there empty for most of the year and costs us around £100,000 to run and maintain.
“We’re committed to listening to everybody but previous ideas for using Crescent Gardens as a community asset didn’t have any commercial benefits.
“Many people in other community projects raise their own money for them.
“Someone may come up with an idea which is so exciting, the council may decide to help.
“We may even entertain a joint venture if the idea is so good.”