What happened to Rothesay’s THI project?

It made national news in May when Rothesay’s Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) was awarded £1.5m funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but nearly five months on there has been no considerable change to the seafront in Rothesay and, as demonstrated on Facebook’s HaveYourSay On Bute page in the months since then, some people have begun already to lose heart.

Project coordinator Lorna Pearce, however, says the project is going well and there is a lot more to come.

“We’re a lot further forward than most THI’s when they start,” Lorna told ButeBites. “They are always slow to start, it tends to be year three people turn around their ideas.”

Part of Argyll Bute Council’s CHORD – a project set up to regenerate the town centre and sea front areas of Campbeltown, Helensburgh, Oban, Rothesay and Dunoon – the Rothesay THI project will provide access to funding for business owners and tenants to improve the appearances of buildings in the town centre, particularly surrounding the town’s Guildford Square and East Princes Street.

“The project runs until March 2016 but the bulk of the work needs to be completed by March 2015 because there will be a year of evaluation. The £1.5m is Heritage Lottery Funding and the Townscape Heritage Initiative (THI) is a Heritage Lottery Fund project,” Lorna said.

Although the award has been made to Rothesay’s THI, every penny still has to be approved before it is spent.

“The £1.5m doesn’t sit in a bank account somewhere, Argyll Bute Council acts like a bank pay roll – we have to justify how the money will be spent before it’s released.

“The £1.5m is there, it’s ring-fenced, but we need to prove the work is up to the standard required for payout,” Lorna continued.

Rothesay’s THI has four funders – the Heritage Lottery Fund, LEADER, Historic Scotland and Argyll Bute Council. The majority of the funding will go toward designated priority buildings which are in more urgent need of repair and restoration. Owners must contribute 20% of the overall cost of any work undertaken and many are already in the process of setting up an owner’s association that can take the project forward on their behalf.

However, the economic downturn means that no matter how appealing the offer of 80 per cent funding is, finding the other 20 per cent is a big obstacle for many owners who say they simply don’t have the money.

“I’m trying to work with those eligible for priority building repairs. It depends on the people in the buildings to form an owner’s association and contribute 20 per cent for the project,” Lorna said.

“The feedback I’m getting is that the banks are not greatly supportive but we’re looking at a lot of other options.”

Another potential stumbling block for the tenants is the revelation that they may be asked to pay a percentage of any profit made on the sale of a property back to the funders of the project if the price of the property has increased as a result of the THI. This would apply to properties sold within 10 years of the completion of the project.

Small building repair grants of up to £15,000 will also be available, but may be more of a challenge to access, Lorna explained:

“This one is a competitive process. A number of business and tenant owners have shown interest. Once the deadline has passed and we have all the applications, we need to decide which buildings need repair most; how prominent the building is – for example, is it along the seafront?; and is it listed? All these are part of the criteria we will be looking at.”

Lorna admitted the response from shop owners for the shopfront repair grant had been disappointing, despite needing just a 5 per cent contribution from an owner toward the overall cost. While eligibility for the grant is restricted to shops in Albert Place, Guildford Square and East Princes Street, if interest does not pick up it could be opened up to a wider range of shops to apply.

It is hoped the Rothesay THI will play a major part in a new effort to turn around the economic decline of the island, and evidence from THI projects in other areas suggests a positive outlook.

“Some house prices have gone up, some towns have had higher visitor numbers, it depends on the location,” Lorna said. “Most importantly, when people start to see things happening and improving it encourages others to do the same. There’s a very positive energy and it seems to be the same in all the THIs.”

While there is no exact timescale for the completion of the larger scale priority building work, it is expected some of the smaller projects will be completed by the end of next summer.

ButeBites says:  The THI project, along with other large projects on the island such as Bute Community Land Company, is an important opportunity for Bute to begin a new chapter. The days of Bute’s booming economy have gone as the market the island once appealed to has gradually disappeared. Rothesay’s seafront and town centre currently looks old and tired and can only serve as a reminder to any visitors to the island of how things used to be. This investment and helping hand to business owners and tenants in tough economic times can play a big part in taking the island forward to a different future, but as is the case with any big project, it needs the full support and attention of the community to reach its full potential.

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