Hall over now?

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HOPES that Garstang’s new parish community centre will open within the next few weeks have been dashed.

Parishioners, townsfolk and community groups had been led to believe the new hall would be open by February or March.

But a major hitch has seen the sale of the old St Thomas’s parish hall fall through – affecting the funding of the new hall, which is only partially complete.

Cash from the sale of the old hall had been intended to fund a substantial part of the estimated £600,000-plus bill for the new hall, being built behind the vicarage off Church Street.

But, following rumours over the past week about work coming to a halt, the church authorities have issued a statement denying that building work has stopped – but confirming that negotiations to sell the old hall have broken down.

The impasse leaves big headaches for both the church authorities, which had promoted the new hall as a facility for both parish AND community use, and for local organisations which currently use the old hall.

Details of the problems have been filtering out to St Thomas’s parishioners and community groups over the past week.

Many parishioners had thought the sale of the old hall, to Lancaster-based pub firm Mitchells (which owns the neighbouring Th’owd Tithebarn) had gone through prior to work beginning last year on the new building.

The breakdown of negotiations over the sale of the old hall is understood to have created a shortfall in church funds to pay for the new hall. Any gap may need to be filled by a loan, possibly from the Blackburn diocese or other ecclesiastical lenders.

A meeting of St Thomas’s Parochial Church Council on Thursday debated the problems and agreed to put the hall on the open market.

The Courier understands it will be advertised soon, and that, in order to attract a buyer fast, the church will be applying for planning permission for either its conversion into homes or for demolition and the building of new homes on the site.

However, any building development or conversion would need the co-operation of Garstang Freemasons who own some of the access land to the site as well as the car park in front of the hall.

After last week’s PCC meeting, and after The Courier began making enquiries, the church issued a brief statement to all churchgoers on Sunday.

The statement confirmed negotiations had broken down over the sale of the old hall, revealed the fact the site was to be put on the open market, but stressed: “In the meantime work on the new parish and community centre has not stopped and continues to progress.”

The boss of the building company working on the new hall, Mr John Holden, confirmed work was continuing, but was unable to say when the new building would open.

When asked he said: “Sometime this year.”

Several church members, and some church officials, have contacted The Courier over the past few days claiming that parishioners and even church officials had been kept in the dark and were annoyed about the way the situation had been handled.

Officials of several Garstang organisations, including Garstang Gardening Club, told The Courier they had initially been told they would be moving into the new hall soon, but had now been told the opening date was ‘uncertain’.

Church warden Mr Doug Willougby declined to answer a list of detailed questions from The Courier and said the PCC would not be adding to its statement.

A Mitchells spokesman declined to comment, adding the company might comment at a future date.

* Comment, page six.