COVENTRY’S historic Priory Visitor Centre is set to close this month – despite being an ‘internationally important’ venue for the Lady Godiva-founded priory and cathedral considered as the city’s birthplace.
The news it is facing being forced to close due to ongoing financial difficulties in a major blow in the run-up to Coventry hosting UK City of Culture in 2021.
It was rescued by a community non-profit social enterprise venture which re-opened it in 2017 – after a year of closure from Coventry City Council cuts and a long Coventry Observer #savethepriory campaign.
We recently reported it had missed out on funding applications to the Big Lottery & ITV Peoples Project Vote.
The centre in Priory Place near to BBC Coventry and Warwickshire is home to the 1000-year-old remains of the city’s first St Mary’s cathedral and priory.
The Bishop of Coventry Christopher Cocksworth has described the centre’s remains and artefacts as one of our city’s great treasures. He added: “The original St Mary’s cathedral and priory played a very important role in the early life of our great city, part of the city’s story which the world urgently needs to hear.”
Sir Tony Robinson, whose Time Team twice visited the site uncovered during excavations in the 199s0 for the new Millennium, described the treasures as being of international significance.
Medieval expert Dr Jonathan Foyle had said Coventry should be doing more to show off its unique medieval treasures to the world.
The centre’s treasures include a Chapter House wall painting, carved sandstone gargoyles, and 14th century tile floors.
The social enterprise business had sought to operate cultural, educational, a healthy food cafe and other activities from the multi-purpose venue and function room, promoting the city’s mediaeval story to future generations.
Now the centre’s operator says: “Coventry Priory CIC have been unable to attract any further funding to help us keep the Priory Visitor Centre open passed the 31st May 2019.
“We have tried a wide variety of avenues to attract additional funding and have barely been able to cover the basic costs of keeping the centre open, never mind paying any staff.
“Unfortunately as we need revenue, funding for Coventry City of Culture 2021 isn’t an option for us.
“Our founding and lead director Carole Donnelly who has always acted in a volunteer capacity has had to take the hard decision to shut the doors again, just two years after reopening when the city council and Culture Coventry closed the doors In February 2016 to save £100’000 per year.
“Carole and the volunteers have worked really hard to make the venue work but with a lack of joined-up support across the city for independents and tourist attractions, lack of funding, poor signage, anti social behaviour, lack of lighting and security which made it difficult to use when dark, coupled with dwindling visitor numbers who were prepared to pay and come back, we have taken the sad decision to close the Priory on the 31st May.
“The £47,000 Lottery funding would have enabled us to build the rest of the cafe, develop the arts and cultural offering that also showcased our unique heritage as the start of Coventry’s journey.
“Our volunteers are devastated and look towards the city council, City of Culture and cathedral to ensure our heritage offering is not lost forever as we approach UK City of Culture 2021.
“All of the volunteers are willing to support an alternative offer from the cathedral to jointly run this amazing facility.
“The Priory has bookings for events until November but without cash flow and the ability to pay a living wage to the centre manager, we are unable to continue as our lease with the council doesn’t allow us to be in debt. ”
Ms Donnelly said “It is with a heavy heart that I need to walk away and close the doors again to the public. As a local entrepreneur who supports many social enterprises in the area, I had to follow the advice I give to others.”
She says she has met with Martin Reeves and senior council staff, but none of the ruling Labour group had contacted her to discuss options.
Conservative councillors including Roger Bailey and Allan Andrews have raised concerns about the imminent closure.
A C9ventry City Council spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that Carole and her team have not been able to keep the Priory Visitor Centre open. We know how hard everyone has worked and we wish them success in whatever they do next.
“The news means there may be a short-term closure of the Centre but we will be meeting with the Cathedral, who own the Visitor Centre and Undercroft and lease it to us, next week to talk about how we can work together and with other partners to get it open again.
“The Undercroft and the archaeological findings represent a very important part of the city’s heritage and history and we will look for a sustainable operating model to help ensure they can continue to be enjoyed by local people and visitors alike.”