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Issue 312 – What now for the Cheese & Grain?

The future use of Frome’s Cheese and Grain building has been thrown into doubt following behind closed doors discussions by Frome Town Council.

Although, there has been no official announcement, trustees of the building believe the town council plans to cut funding and take on the running of the centre itself.
As they wait to officially hear about the town council’s plans for the venue, the trustees are urging local people to attend the charity’s Annual General Meeting on Tuesday 7th December.
Currently the town council has a 99-year lease on the building from Mendip District Council and sub-leases it to Frome Cheese and Grain Ltd, a non-profit making charity set up by the town council in 2003. Since then, the town council has contributed £35,000 a year to running costs.
The only official word from Frome Town Council has been a comment by Roger Heath, acting chief executive, saying, “An exciting proposal was decided upon by the policy and finance committee of the town council to develop the Cheese and Grain. We will be having further discussions over the coming weeks and months.”

‘Surprise decision’

The Board of Trustees of Frome Cheese and Grain Ltd met on Monday evening to discuss what they say is a ‘surprise decision to cease all funding and desire to take over the building’.
Afterwards, they issued the following statement to Frome Times:
“Trustees of the Cheese and Grain are immensely proud of what has been achieved by the charity – we inherited an organisation from the town council which was facing a deficit of over £30,000 in its first year and possible closure and we have turned it around. The Cheese and Grain is now much leaner and fitter and we have managed to make an average profit of £5,000 which we have invested in the building and equipment.
“With the grant of £35,000 a year we have estimated that the Cheese and Grain generates a total economic benefit to the town of over £250,000. Our footfall last year was over 110,000.
“The Town Council’s continuing funding has been a key part of our success as it has enabled us to support community activities such as markets and local events. The grant has remained fixed at the level set at its 2003 level and around 70% of our income is earned. Major music events make a profit which is used to subsidise bookings by the local community. The quality of our music programme is without parallel for a town of the size of Frome and makes it the envy of other places.

‘Deeply saddened’

“Without capital reserves, progress improving the building has inevitably been slow. We recognise that investment in the building is the key to generating more income but could not raise the necessary funding ourselves until a long lease had been agreed. In May 2010 we signed a new 30 year lease from the council and began implementing our fundraising strategy to develop the unused mezzanine floor. This was to create a new community room in the heart of Frome.
“Trustees learnt only in August that the council planned to withdraw its funding over three years. When trustees decided that they could not afford to sign up to this it appears that the council made the decision to withdraw funding altogether. Trustees are deeply saddened by the fact that a decision with such major consequences for the town has been made without ever having the opportunity to address the full council.
“The overriding priority for trustees is to see the Cheese and Grain continue to prosper as a facility for the whole community and as a leading tourist attraction bringing prosperity to the town. Trustees welcome the fact the council is committed to investing in building improvements and to maintaining the programme of events and await with interest details of the council’s plans.
“In negotiating a transfer, trustees will be seeking to ensure that the building’s many users will continue to be accommodated and that the rights of all staff are fully protected.”
The Charity’s Annual General Meeting is being held on Tuesday 7th December. In the light of the council’s decision the charity is opening up the meeting to the public as well as its own members and is inviting representatives of the council to speak at the meeting.
Carla Besley, Chairman of the Cheese and Grain said “This will provide an opportunity for the council to share its vision for the building with our members and users. The Cheese and Grain plays a very important part in the life of Frome and there is a great deal of interest in the council’s plans.”
The AGM starts at 7.30pm at the Cheese and Grain and this year you do not need to be a member to attend. Members of the Cheese and Grain are entitled to vote, and elect trustees. Anyone who supports the Cheese and Grain and who lives or works in Frome or the surrounding area can apply. Forms are available from the Cheese and Grain or on line.
John Birkett-Smith, Cheese and Grain finance director, commented, “I have been involved with this project since 1999, when it was operated by the council and through all the years of the charity. Initially it was a long and difficult process turning the Cheese and Grain from a council-run building into a community led, independent organisation. It will be a sad day for me, and I suspect for many others, to see all that effort being undone”
Gerlinde Rambausek, vice- chair, said “The Cheese and Grain is the very epitome of what the government calls the Big Society. As a charity it has benefited from the time and commitment of volunteers and has been able to save costs and to raise funds. In addition to local authority grants we are particularly grateful to the Frome Lottery for furniture and equipment grants, the Bingo Club for furniture and to other individual funders. Our fantastic new website, launched in July 2010 was funded by donations in memory of a young man who had regularly attended music events.”
Carla Besley, chairman, added, “We would like to pay tribute to our staff. For all of them, working at the Cheese and Grain has been more than just a job and their commitment has played a vital part in its success. For three Cheese and Grain staff this will be a return to the Town Council – Karen Harley, the office and box office manager has been with the Cheese and Grain since it first opened in 1998. I am relieved that the council have told us that they will protect the jobs of our staff “
The Cheese and Grain building, the old Market Hall, had fallen into dereliction until it was opened by Frome Town Council in 1998 with a vision for using it as a community hall. The town council took out an initial loan to refurbish the building, and a further loan a few years later in order to install a soundproofed roof and new mezzanine floor above the bar/café/foyer.
In 2003, the town council set up an independent charity to run the Cheese and Grain on a non-profit making basis, for community use, with a 10 year lease of the ground floor. Frome Cheese and Grain Limited is now the name of the charity.
The town council has given the Cheese and Grain an unchanged annual grant of £35,000. This is linked to a four year ‘service level agreement’ SLA which specifies that the grant is used to promote community activities. The current SLA runs out at the end of March 2011.
The Cheese and Grain can hold up to 850 people standing, 500 seated and up to 55 market stalls. The venue hosts regular markets three days per week, specialist charity fairs and markets, charity bingo two nights per week and dozens of community events from charity fundraising, in addition to the music events for which it has gained a national reputation
The Cheese and Grain also provides a box office for Frome Festival, selling nearly 6,000 tickets in 2010.
In May 2010 the Cheese and Grain was given a new 30-year lease to cover the ground floor and mezzanine space.
The mezzanine space has been vacant since it was built, and in that time the council has twice considered and rejected moving its own offices into the space. Having been granted a lease for this space in May 2010, the charity had planned to raise funds to turn it into smaller community room
In 2009-10 the total number of people participating in events at the Cheese and Grain was over 110,000.
Performers playing at the Cheese and Grain over the past seven years have included Robert Plant, the Stranglers, Babyshambles, the Editors, Reel Big Fish, Johnny Winter, Seth Lakeman, Reginald D Hunter and Walter Trout.
Emily Eavis, who organises the Glastonbury Festival with her father, Michael, the founder of the event, became the Patron of the Cheese and Grain in 2009.

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