Heritage campaigners have set up a trust to raise the ‘serious’ money needed to buy Sheffield’s Old Town Hall.
The landmark Grade II-listed building has been up for sale for 18 months with no sign of commercial interest, and has been gradually deteriorating.
The Friends of the Old Town Hall group has long been fighting to save it from demolition or ruin.
But with no buyer in sight the volunteers have taken matters into their own hands formed a trust to raise the money to buy and restore the building themselves.
They estimate the purchase and work will cost more than £10 million.
Friends group chairman Valerie Bayliss, one of three new trustees, said: “It’s some years down the line and it’s going to take a lot of work to put that package together.
“But we will keep going as long as there’s a possibility that we can get it into community ownership and open to the public.”
The problems facing the Old Town Hall, according to its dedicated Friends group, are many and well documented.
But there is a growing concern that the longer the building is left alone by its owner G1 London Properties, the more expensive it will be to repair it.
The Friends have noticed some minor work in recent weeks, such as the patching up of skylights and the removal of some litter.
But, as shown by frequent videos posted online by ‘urban explorers’, the interior of the once-grand courtrooms and chambers are in need of serious work.
Property agent Fearnie Greaves has been trying to sell the Grade II-listed building for years. It is still on the market, but in October director Tim Bottrill revealed the owner was considering putting in a planning application to develop the site itself. No plans have yet come forward.
At last week’s Star Cabinet event, readers raised the issue of the Old Town Hall, and were given some good news.
Deputy leader Leigh Bramall said the authority would soon be in a position to use its ‘stuck sites’ powers to carry out repairs on the building to make it watertight - and then force the owners to pay for the work.
“We all know that it’s a great building and part of Sheffield’s history, and it will help with the regeneration of Castlegate,” he said.
Coun Bramall also confirmed the council was trying to find the £400,000 needed to remove the huge concrete slab that once held up Castle Market, and is potentially covering the ruins of Sheffield Castle.
“We know we can’t fully regenerate all of Castlegate until we do that,” he said.
The Friends group successfully applied for a £7,700 start-up grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund last year, and has used that to form the Castlegate Preservation Trust and register it with the Charity Commission.
A bid for money to test the viability of a business model for the Old Town Hall has been lodged with the Architectural Heritage Fund, and once that work is done, the trust will be in a strong position to approach the Heritage Lottery Fund for the ‘serious’ money needed to buy and restore the building.
Mrs Bayliss acknowledges any new use will have to be sustainable, but wants to see Castlegate’s history and heritage reflected as well.
“We want it in community ownership,” she said. “We want part of the use to generate income.
“That might be community workspace, it might be a backpacker’s hostel.
“Beyond that we can see food, drink - a bar in the cells, for example, or a community cafe.
“The court rooms would lend themselves in part to a small performance stage and rehearsal rooms.”
Mrs Bayliss said ‘serious financial modelling’ was needed to make sure the project would work - and to secure further Heritage Lottery Fund money. More than £10 million is likely to be required.
The Friends have been in talks with potential developers, some of whom have expressed interest in the Old Town Hall and other sites in the area - although no firm proposal has come forward.
Mrs Bayliss said there was every chance a commercial offer would come in the meantime, and the Friends would try to work closely with any developer.
And she said the council’s assurance on the stuck sites programme was ‘music to my ears’.
But the trustees know there is a long road ahead.
“This will take five years, because we are going to need a lot of money,” said Mrs Bayliss.
“But we have got to start.”
The Friends will hold an AGM at the Friends’ Meeting House in St James’s Street from 7.15pm on March 27.
Visit sheffieldoldtownhall.co.uk for more on the group.