The old Co-op store on Gillingham’s High Street which was partially destroyed by fire nearly five years ago is finally to open its doors again – this time as a community charity centre. Gillingham Community Church (GCC) is signing a deal with leaseholder Co-op to take over the structure to co-ordinate its charitable work in the area, including the local Food Bank, and create a 200-seat auditorium that will be available for community use. Under the deal the Co-op will pay for the refurbishment of the building, which was hit by fire in October 2012, and let the church use the premises until the lease runs out in December 2021.
‘Because it’s an ethical company, it wanted to be able to put something back into the community,’ says Hannah Gibbons, a leader of the GCC. ‘The Co-op is covering the rent, as well as spending tens of thousands of pounds fitting it out by putting in heating, and sorting out the electrics and plumbing.‘
The news that the empty building, which has a total surface area of 15,000 square feet, will finally be used again has been greeted with delight by many. Councillor Barry Von Clemens broke the news to a meeting of Gillingham Town councillors with the words: ‘How many times have we heard when are they going to do something with the old Co-op? They are. This is fabulous news.’
However, one hurdle remains before the deal can go ahead. The church is already assured of 80 percent relief on the £100,000-plus business rates on the site but needs 100 percent rate relief from North Dorset District Council to make the project viable. As Gillingham News was going to press Gillingham Town Council was considering a motion proposed by mayor Belinda Ridout stating that the council ‘wholeheartedly support’ the initiative to obtain’ 100% rate relief of the former supermarket facilities and associated car park’. Councillor Von Clemens, who initiated the idea for the motion, said he was also writing to local MP Simon Hoare to win his support for the move ‘so that we can finally have this facility’. Other councillors also welcomed the new lease of life for the Co-op. ‘It really is good news,’ said Councillor Roger Monksummers.
The GCC says it is excited about the prospect of taking on the new premises as it will allow them to expand their many services, including the Food Bank. ‘At the moment, the Food Bank is spread over three sites – the building on the corner of Station Road where we initially meet people, another where we store and pack food for people to take home and another warehouse,’ says Hannah. ‘At the new premises we will be able have it all in the one place. As we can store more, we can buy the things we need in bulk which will make it cheaper and lorries will be able to drive into the loading bay at the back.
‘We also want to be able to start a clothes bank for quality clothes so people who need help can be kitted out as well.’
The GCC holds a twice-weekly drop-in service, Open Door, where those struggling to cope can receive help and support on issues such as debt, benefit assistance and advocacy. The current building is too small to allow for separate rooms. ‘In the new premises, we will be able to talk to people in private which will be much better,’ says Hannah. ‘We will also be able to have a kitchen, instead of just a boiler and microwave, which means we can improve and expand our free lunch service which at the moment is soup and a roll.’
However, the GCC is keen for other groups to use the offices too. Currently a number of charities use the Old Library as a meeting space and the church would like this number to expand. ‘We will also hire it out to business or parties at a low rate, just enough to cover the costs and pay the person who will manage the building,’ says Hannah.
The ground floor is large enough to be a 200-seater auditorium which the church will use for its Sunday service, which is currently held at the hall in Gillingham Primary School. However, it wants to open up this space to the town too, giving it a concert venue, and this will be complemented by free parking for up to 40 cars.
The Co-op store has stood unused since the fire on 20 October, 2012, which destroyed half of the store. The cause of the blaze is thought to have been a faulty fridge freezer.