Campaign to buy pub for community is launched
A RESIDENTS' campaign has been launched to buy and reopen a pub as a new 'community hub'.
The last pint was pulled at the Merchants Arms five years ago.
Since then the pub in Bell Hill, Stapleton, has belonged to a developer who has submitted a series of plans for the site, most recently to turn the ground floor into a "function hall" and make permanent a six-bedroom house in multiple occupation (HMO) on the first floor.
Residents have campaigned for the building to reopen as a pub and it was officially listed as an Asset of Community Value in 2018, to give it some protection from development and allow an opportunity for a community bid, should the site be put up for sale.
Now the Colston Estate Community Association, which led the 2018 campaign, has formed a community interest company (CIC) to try to buy the building from owner Red Rock Developments.
The Merchants Arms Community Project CIC has until the end of February next year to work up a bid.
Resident Chris Faulkner Gibson, one of the CIC directors, said: "There's quite an appetite in the community to have a go at it and we've triggered a moratorium period so they can't sell it to anyone else."
Chris said the idea was to create a business run by the community for the benefit of the community, providing a cafe and community space as well as a pub, with other possibilities including a post office.
He said: "We want to restore it not just as a pub but as a community hub, and the inclusion of a cafe will make it much more inclusive for the community as a whole."
Crowdfunding sites have been set up to meet the costs of putting together a business plan, including website and professional advice fees, and the CIC is working on its bid with the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that helps create and run community-owned businesses.
More than 200 people have expressed an interest in the project and 30 have already donated to the fighting fund.
The Merchants Arms as it looked before it closed in 2016
The Merchants Arms now
The current asking price for the Merchants Arms site is £975,000 – more than twice the £475,000 Red Rock Developments paid for the site in 2016, according to Land Registry figures.
The community bid would be funded by a share offer.
While there is no guarantee the CIC will be able to raise the funds, Chris said: "If we don't succeed, it won't be for want of trying.
"We're quite convinced it could be viable.
"There are over 150 community-owned pubs in the country – not one of them has gone bust, but most were previously written off by pub companies. As long as you're meeting your costs, your need for a big profit margin is less than it is for commercial companies.
"We don't at the moment have a local pub or somewhere to meet up with our neighbours."
After the latest plans were submitted in February the developers said they hoped the planned privately-owned and run function hall would become a "valued facility for the local community".
Two previous plans have been rejected and the latest application is awaiting a decision. The Voice understands that it was due to be discussed by councillors in early November but was taken off the agenda at the request of Red Rock Developments.
A meeting between the site's owners, the CIC and a council planning officer is expected to take place soon.
Agent Stuart Rackham, of Rackham Planning, said: "We are working with the city council to meet and discuss this directly with the group."
The residents have been backed by Eastville ward city councillor Marley Bennett, who said: "There is no other pub in the local area, and I think this is an ideal location.
"Pubs play a crucial role in bringing communities together and the rate that pubs are closing is a great concern to me, so it’s good to back such an important campaign to re-open a former pub.
"I am doing all I can to support this and have raised the issue of the support given to community pubs with the Mayor and hope to secure a meeting between the relevant Cabinet Member and local CAMRA representatives to discuss what more can be done."
The Merchants Arms opened in 1938 and was most recently operated by brewery Greene King as part of its Hungry Horse chain before it closed in December 2016.
Campaigners have discovered that the site was once home to another pub, the Rose & Crown, which appeared in records from the 1830s.
For more information on the CIC and links to its donation pages visit the website www.themerchantsarmscp.co.uk.
Main picture: CIC directors Mervyn Hill, Ian Blackwell, Steve Parkhouse and Chris Faulkner Gibson with Colston Estate Community Association treasurer Louise Blackwell outside the Merchants Arms.