THE 1,000-year-old Lady Godiva-founded heritage site at Coventry’s Priory Visitor Centre could re-open within months, it has been announced – following our #SaveThePriory campaign.
The Coventry Observer’s two-month long campaign followed the council’s astonishing closure in late February of the home to the ‘city’s birthplace’ original Cathedral and Priory – to save an estimated £100,000, less than half the council chief executive Martin Reeves’ earnings.
The Bishop of Coventry, the reverend Dr Christopher Cocksworth, two weeks ago became the latest high-profile figure to add his voice to our campaign.
We are calling on the council to ensure the ‘internationally important’ venue – housing treasured remains and artefacts buried for hundreds of years until they were discovered in Millennium project excavations – to be re-opened URGENTLY, especially as the city is bidding to become UK capital of culture.
Labour Coventry South MP Jim Cunningham; Blackadder actor and TV’s Time Team presenter Sir Tony Robinson; and eminent architectural historian Dr Jonathan Foyle have also backed our campaign.
They have said the centre is vital for international tourism and the nation’s heritage, and it is also needed for current and future generations of Coventrians to learn about the city’s rich history.
This week, we called on the Labour-run council to make clear to voters its latest intentions in response to mounting calls for positive and urgent action.
We called on the council to finally announce for the first time a timescale for a bidding process for a potential takeover of the venue.
Council officers have responded by announcing the bidding process will start a week on Monday (May 9), and will be completed with some urgency by the end of May.
That could mean a re-opening under any takeover within months. Our campaign will continue to hold the council to account – particularly in the event of inadequate or unsustainable bids, and any further delays in the venue re-opening.
Our #SaveThePriory campaign is calling on the council to ensure the vital historic resource is open as soon as possible – regardless of whether such community takeovers prove to be the solution.
The council has a revenue budget of £230million, additional borrowing streams, and potential leverage and influence over external funding pots, and could help the centre financially if necessary.
We have added our voice to Dr Jonathan Foyle’s claim that closing the centre in Priory Place, near Priory Row, city centre, is a false economy and that, with a little investment and better promotion and marketing, it could generate more income for the city.
A council statement to us this week states: “The Expression of Interest for the future tenants of the Priory Visitor Centre will be advertised from 9 May and people will have until 30 May to respond.
“We’ll then evaluate them and seek political approval for a preferred tenant as soon as possible.”
Leading Labour councillors only announced they would seek expressions of interest for a potential community takeover a year after originally voting to close the centre in last year’s Budget, a decision they refused to renege on this year despite pressure from tourist guide Roger Bailey and his fellow opposition councillors.
The council also told us six weeks ago – following our detailed questions as part of our campaign – that the centre could re-open on occasional days AHEAD of any takeover after the bidding process.
This week, the council appeared to row back on that, suggesting any occasional open days would have to wait until after a ‘tenant’ is chosen.
The statement added: “We’re keen to see the centre and Undercroft opened for special occasions, such as Heritage Open Days, and we’ll also be discussing this with the chosen tenant.
“The lease for the Visitor Centre is still held by Culture Coventry and the Multi-Faith Group who meet there.”
Mr Cunningham MP is among those who has said the centre should at the very least be opened some days a week as a matter of urgency.
Last week, we revealed Coventry businesswoman Carole Donnelly is set to bid to re-open the centre as a multi-purpose attraction run as a social enterprise, following an asset transfer.
It is not clear whether other parties will also bid.
She says she already had provisional support from heritage group the Coventry Society for the venue, which could be staffed by community volunteers.
She added there was potential to raise funds from Lottery, heritage and other grants, or from a ‘community share option’ where individuals could donate between £50 and £20,000, following an ‘asset transfer’.
Other community organisations – from a cafe company to local creative and artistic organistions and Coventry University’s social enterprise firm – could potentially get involved, she added.
There remains no certainly that the centre will ever re-open.
The Bishop of Coventry said The Priory Visitor Centre was “one of our city’s great treasures”.
He added it “played a very important role in the early life of our great city” and was part of the city’s heritage and story, which the world “urgently needs to hear”.
How YOU can support our #SaveThePriory campaign:
Our letters page.. Share your thoughts and experiences, in words or pictures, and say what Coventry’s proud medieval history means to you.
On Twitter @covobserver. Using the hashtag #savethepriory to pledge your support.
On Facebook.co.uk/covobserver. Keep up to date, and share your thoughts.
Head to our dedicated #savethepriory web page, and get the latest on the battle to Save the Priory Visitor Centre