Wednesday 8 May 2013

Different hymn sheets

"New alley opening will bowl you over" screams the headline in the Carmarthen Journal, announcing the forthcoming much delayed opening of the new evangelical bowling alley in Johnstown, financed in large part by the long-suffering council tax payers of Carmarthenshire.

The Journal reckons that the venture has cost £1.3 million, although it does not say how that figure was arrived at. Presumably that's what it said in the press release.

As previously noted on this blog, the county council's contribution alone is more than £1.4 million (the price paid for the site, the grants and loans), while the Big Lottery Fund chipped in with £800,000, and there are bank loans in the region of £750,000. Towy Community Church's contribution to the project was originally stated to be £17,000, and mystery continues to surround how much actual money the church has put into the kitty.

As we know (see previous post), the council is very keen not to allow any daylight to shine on its dealings with Towy Community Church. Although the council is by far the largest financial backer and the church's bankers and the Lottery Fund have secured priority over the tax payer in the event that the venture goes belly up, requests for detailed information about the project are considered to be not just impudent, but vexatious.

Ever since the project first saw the light of day, the council and the church have been consistent in one thing only: they have sung from different hymn sheets. The numbers quoted have been all over the place. The church claimed at one point that the council had purchased the site in Johnstown for the church. The council said it had always wanted a bowling alley and had bought the site while it was in negotiations with someone else (identity still unknown). The Wales Audit Office said that it was the church which first approached the council with the idea of turning the former creamery into a bowling alley. Take your pick.

Here is an entirely imaginary conversation from 2009:

Mark: "Hallo Mark, it's Mark! I've had a wonderful vision. We could turn that crumbling old dump down in Johnstown into a ten-pin bowling alley. I wonder who owns it?"

Mark: "Well Mark, what an extraordinary coincidence! It just so happens that we own it, and Meryl and I have always wanted Carmarthen to have a bowling alley. So much more in keeping with our exciting corporate image than those mouldy old museums and all that Welsh language and culture stuff standing in the way of progress. Let's start a project together!"

Things moved very rapidly. Incredibly rapidly, in fact. In July 2010 the Big Lottery Fund announced that it was awarding £798,000 to the project.

And so it came to pass in the days of Meryl Augusta that the former creamery was leased to Towy Community Church at a peppercorn rent for 99 years. Interestingly, the Journal quotes the pastor as saying that the bowling alley will be leased to the church for 20 years.

This is the first time that a shorter lease has been mentioned, and if correct it would suggest that someone has got cold feet about the wisdom of committing to a century of evangelical bowling. Although that's still a much shorter stretch than the eternity of conscious punishment which, the church says, faces people like Carmarthenshire's bloggers.

The Journal notes that the bowling alley is just the first phase of a bigger project. Phase II will involve the development of a 612 seater auditorium (to be run by the church and used for its church services, but emphatically not to be regarded as a church). Both phases were passed by the council's planners at the same time, and a condition of the deal is that Phase II has to be completed within 5 years, or "a few years away", as Mr Bennett put it rather vaguely.

But let's give the last word to Meryl and the Journal:

"It is the way forward. It's working in partnership. They don't have to come back to us for more grants in future. It's self financing."

The project team hopes to start tendering for contractors to build phase one of the scheme by the end of the year. (Carmarthen Journal  September 2010)

Sadly, Meryl's crystal ball must have been malfunctioning that day, because in 2011 the church was back asking for more money (lots of it), and the opening is two and a half years late.


Anonymous said...
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Welsh not British said...

It mentions "family days". Will I be able to take my family for some bowlio deg or is it some kind of pray as you go scheme?

Anonymous said...

Interesting reading, how come the council will bend over backwards to help comunity groups to take over certain sites/buildings but will do nothing to accommodate other potential schemes which would benefit communities and local businesses. I am thinking here of the old market in Llandeilo which the council seems very keen not to encourage potential plans to turn it into a community market/shop and centre which would be very advantagous for the town?

Cneifiwr said...

To Anon who posted at 18.53, thank you for the points you make, and I think you may well be right. Unfortunately I think the lawyers would have a field day.

Cneifiwr said...

Anon @22.07 - you have touched on something interesting here, which is the top-down, private club nature of the way the county council is run in Carmarthenshire. There are very good examples of true community initiatives in neighbouring authorities which would not stand a chance in Carmarthenshire. The subject for a future blog post. I'd be very interested to hear more about the Llandeilo project - could you get in touch via e-mail?

Anonymous said...

Llandeilo Market Hall or correctly the Old Provisions Market Hall was gifted to the town of LLandeilo in 19th Century but over the various reorganisations is now in the ownership of CCC A Plan to sell to Gwalia was defeated with Planning Committee throwing it out supporting the town council , residents and various groups who want to see the building used for community / commercial/ retail use not flats in the middle of a conservation area / Also there is a piece of land that will make additional car parking for residents and traders but CCC Corporate Property do not want to talk to the Community