SHEFFIELD’S showpiece Botanical Gardens are losing out on visitors, despite their £6m restoration, because of a wrangle over the venue’s café.
Deadlock over the Curator’s House tea rooms and restaurant, which closed in November, is also threatening the future of the neighbouring gift shop.
And Friends of the Botanical Gardens are frustrated because they say visitors are being driven away by the lack of amenities.
The situation has arisen after Malcolm Donaldson, who had run the café for ten years, lost the tenancy at the end of last year.
A new tenant was appointed and a ten-year lease was signed. But, five months on, the premises remain empty.
Ed Kelly, who runs the neighbouring Gatehouse Gift Shop, off Clarkehouse Road, said: “It’s been an absolute nightmare and it’s had a devastating effect on my business.
“I’ve been here six years and gradually built it up but without the tea rooms I’m struggling and I can’t move forward without them.”
He has changed the name of his unit to The Little Nature Shop – specialising in wildlife and nature items from bird houses to honey – in a bid to drum up new business.
“But people are going to the museum or other parks instead. I’d never have taken the shop without the tea rooms and I don’t know how long I can keep going,” he added.
FOBS members are also frustrated by the lack of action.
“We naively expected the café to open again within a matter of weeks. The impact has been very bad,” said chairman Jane Quibell. “People want a cup of coffee to warm them up, especially in the winter. If they have a bad experience that puts them off coming.
“We’ve put all this effort into making the gardens an attractive feature for Sheffield but there’s no point in having beautiful gardens if nobody visits.”
The problem was exacerbated because adjoining toilets were also closed. These have now been reopened but there is no sign of life at the Curator’s House.
It is understood that the initial delay was due to negotiations over fixtures and fittings, involving the outgoing and incoming tenants – who have not been named.
Mr Donaldson, a former police licensing officer, was unhappy about the move, claiming: “We have been unceremoniously turfed out.”
But since then both his companies – Botanical Catering Ltd and The Boardwalk (Sheffield) Ltd – have gone into liquidation and the grade II-listed building has been cleared.
He could not be contacted yesterday (Wednesday).
Meanwhile, the café remains closed and the city council, which is landlord of the building, has not yet resolved the situation.
Paul Billington, director of culture and environment, said: “Sheffield City Council regards the current position at the Curator’s House as unacceptable and has been doing everything possible to find a solution.
“The options available to us have been to restart the whole tendering process or to put in temporary caterers… However, the council is now in renewed final discussions with the incoming tenant to fix a timescale for reopening the catering operation.
“If agreement is not reached, the council will revert to its alternative options. All of this is being conducted with the utmost speed.”
The restaurant building was constructed in the late 1840s as a home for the gardens’ curator – a role it fulfilled until 1994. In 2005 it was voted among the top 50 tea rooms in the country by the Independent newspaper.
FOBS has promised to announce news of the café’s reopening on its website, www.fobssheffield.co.uk