When the last administration at the Isle of Wight council transferred Ventnor’s Winter Gardens into the hands of a private owner for £1, part of the agreement was that owner committed to a multi-million pound redevelopment of the building and site.
The headlines at the time were all about it being expanded to include a hotel, complete with glamorous visuals of how it would appear.
There’s no denying that it’s been painted – you may recall students from the College were brought in for work experience to paint the building. It’s also open to the public as its owner Kevin Sussmilch, promised it would be open by summer 2014.
With the 18 month contractual deadline for the development to be ‘substantially complete’ now passed (that was in mid-July), OnTheWight posed a number of questions to the council.
No definitive answers
What has become evident through asking questions is that the Isle of Wight council still appear to be shy on answering simple questions about the future of the Ventnor Winter Gardens.
It took two weeks for the council press office to respond to our questions, sending just a brief comment from Cllr Jon Gilbey, Executive member for Finance and PFI, who failed to answer many of the questions posed.
Cllr Gilbey told OnTheWight,
“The council has until 10 January 2015 to exercise its option to return the building to its control if the works have not been substantially completed.
“We will review the extent of the works undertaken and will make a decision about any appropriate action in that timeframe.”
First mention of six month period
This is the first time the council have ever mentioned a six month period within which they can take action.
On previous occasions of asking what the council will do if the promised development is not carried out – such as whether they would impose penalties – they simply replied that the Cabinet will decide once the 18 month deadline is up.
- Does the council feel that Kevin Sussmilch has completed his side of the deal?
- If not, what action is the council considering and when would it be executed?
- Have the council made any preparations to take the building into council control?
- If so, how much has the current owner claimed had been spent?
- Please can we have a comment from the Executive member responsible.
A spokesperson for the council confirmed that the quote from Cllr Gilbey above “is the response to your questions” and he would not be answering each of them individually.
What were the terms of the contract?
As has been reported several times before, the terms of the contract of sale between the Isle of Wight council and The Hambrough Group read,
“The document which transfers the freehold to the Hambrough Group provides that it must, ‘commence and substantially complete the development insofar as it relates to the building within 18 months of the date of the transfer’.
“If the refurbishment and development of the Winter Gardens is not substantially completed within that time the council has an option agreement to buy the property back for the greater of £1 or an amount agreed reflecting the investment made by the purchaser.”
What does ‘substantially complete’ mean?
If like us, you were wondering what the council felt constituted ‘substantially complete’, they advised in July 2013 it is, “The development of the scheme as presented to, evaluated by and accepted by the council.”
Those plans included in excess of £1.3m initially being spent on the renovation and development of the venue, with several million pounds being spent in the longer term.
Plans on hold
In December 2013 Kevin Sussmilch suddenly announced that despite showing proof of having the money available to the council in 2011, “due to unexpected changes within the business and the current economic climate it has meant a delay to the planned refurbishment and development of the site,” adding that, “plans have been put temporarily on hold”.
The day before Mr Sussmilch made that announcement, Cllr Jon Gilbey, told OnTheWight,
“The lack of work undertaken at this prime site in the heart of Ventnor is unacceptable and not what was promised by the developer when it acquired the Winter Gardens from the previous administration.
“It is clear to me that it has broken promises made for the future economic prosperity of the town and I share the frustrations of local residents and businesses at the lack of activity.
“With the July deadline approaching fast, I would hope that we will start to see a start to the promised development of the building in the new year.”
Cllr Gilbey seemed previously concerned about the July deadline approaching, but now talks about possibly taking six months in which to review the situation.
The other bids
By awarding the contract to The Hambrough Group, the council rejected two other shortlisted bids. A commercial bid and a community bid, both of which intended to carry out quick remedial work and reopen as soon as possible – with more important structural and renovation work taking place later in time.
Instead, the Ventnor Winter Gardens sat empty for three and a half years. Now reopened by The Hambrough Group, little more than was planned by both of the other bids has been carried out.