It is the David and Goliath battle that has captured imaginations across Bristol. Now, those fighting to secure the future of Hamilton House as a community arts hub have revealed there may be a light at the end of the tunnel.
Current custodians Coexist has been embroiled in tense talks with landlords Connolly & Callaghan(C&C) following a rejected bid to buy the building and talk of seizing it back for redevelopment that has left tenants in a state of uncertainty for months.
Things came to a head at a heated meeting in July, after which a collective of artists, sole traders and individuals who rely on the premises formed an action group to fight for Hamilton House to remain as a community asset.
A petition to save it has received more than 9,200 signatures.
Faced with a substantial hike in rent as long-standing subsidies are due to be pulled, social enterprise company Coexist says it has been forced to explore ways to create a more sustainable business model which could include expansion into other premises.
And while concerns remain, some security has been offered by C&C, who have confirmed the building is not for sale and no offers have been accepted by developers, but instead say the property could be taken on by a community land trust.
If an agreement can be reached, the company has indicated it will consider a 10 year lease for Coexist which means, for the first time, they will be in a position to apply for funding and support for social enterprise work.
“The prospect of operating from a reduced footprint and with a 400 per cent increase in rental costs is a huge undertaking for any organisation to have to plan for, and it is requiring all of our innovation and resilience to even see if this is possible,” Coexist director Danny Balla told Bristol24/7.
“At this time the most important priority is to continue exploring how to re-structure Coexist’s business model to find ways we can continue to support our existing community here at Hamilton House and still operate in a way which meets our social objectives.”
He added that there is a clear need for Hamilton House to be in community ownership to safeguard it for the future and protect the many artists, sole traders, charities, community organisations and individuals who rely on the space and services provided there.
C&C is seeking to increase the value of its property by developing the rear, City Road-facing block (referred to as block C) into flats – something that Coexist opposes, due to the threat and upheaval it poses to many tenants.
Andrew Baker, C&C’s head of social enterprise told Bristol24/7: “C&C’s primary aim is to ensure that social enterprise continues at Hamilton House, in keeping with our original vision for the building.
“To achieve that, we are aiming to secure the front (Block A) as a community hub for the foreseeable future. We are open to ideas on how this can be achieved.”
He claimed that for the past nine years, C&C has been subsiding Coexist by around £500,000 a year by charging low rents and the company is unable to continue to do this.
The landlords are now proposing to remove the subsidy in order to put profits back into capital improvements of the property itself and plan to achieve this by developing block C into homes that they say will not be ‘yuppy flats’, but affordable for ordinary people.
Coexist argue they can only base a business model on the realities of rates as they have stood for many years since they took on the management of Hamilton House in the midst of the financial crash and they say that C&C have they been asked to pay more in rent.
The current Hamilton House custodians say they are now looking at a number of options, including developing a membership model and maximising commercial outputs from event spaces.
There is also the possibility of expanding across multiple sites which could widen the social impact, as well as strengthening and diversifying the community.
Coexist will host a community meeting on Thursday, October 26 to talk through options in more detail.