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Meeting over closure of Co-Innovation Centre for start-up businesses, Stembrook, Dover


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Management at a start-up businesses hub weeks from closure will meet the council to try to salvage the situation.

The shutdown date is Friday the 13th of August.

The audience at the meeting, seated socially distanced because of Covid, Picture: Sam Lennon
The audience at the meeting, seated socially distanced because of Covid, Picture: Sam Lennon

Martina White, project director for Co-Innovation in Dover, will have talks with Mike Davies, finance director of Dover District Council, expected this week but at a date to be confirmed.

The centre, in Stembrook, closes when the lease runs out and the 25 traders have nowhere to go.

Nearly 60 people, mainly traders and customers, turned up at a meeting on at the centre last Thursday evening (July 1) to discuss the problem.

Ms White told the meeting: "The council said there would be no funds from them but they would seek alternative funding from other sources.

"But the problem is we need to get a new place. We've only got six weeks left until we leave and we need somewhere to immediately go to. We have looked at 17 properties, and found nothing for us yet.

Co-Innovation project manager Martina White speaks at the meeting. Picture: Sam Lennon
Co-Innovation project manager Martina White speaks at the meeting. Picture: Sam Lennon

"Landlords are difficult to negotiate with. They are looking for a 7 to 15% return on their property.

"They are not interested in anything community driven, they are interested in what goes into their pocket."

Dover District Council, which owns the building has taken just a peppercorn rent and grants cover the tenants' rate bills.

Both Ms White and centre manager Jan Shepherd said they understood that the council wanted to knock the building down and redevelop the site.

Ms White said: "They have the shovel ready to knock the building down."

"People who could answer our questions have not turned up."

It had been a Co-operative store until that closed in 2017. The Co-Innovation enterprise there opened in 2019 as an incubation centre for fledgling businesses.

Once they grew they would set up on their own in high street premises, several of which have remained empty for years.

The meeting heard that eight businesses had successfully done this over the last two years.

Ms White said that had the pandemic not financially crippled businesses another two or three would have done the same.

The meeting heard that Co-Innovation was not just a business hub but also a social and community centre.

Jan Shepherd pictured when Co-Innovation opened in 2019 .Picture: Paul Amos.
Jan Shepherd pictured when Co-Innovation opened in 2019 .Picture: Paul Amos.

It was a place for the elderly to socialise, and also used for a mother and toddler group, for quiz nights and for rehearsals for a Shakespeare play before the pandemic.

But Mrs Shepherd stressed that it had been known that the centre would end up closing.

Dover District Council was criticised at the meeting for providing an almost zero attendance there.

But it now explains that a group from the authority had met centre management beforehand.

Fourteen officers and councillors, including cabinet members, were invited to be there that evening and only two replied to say they couldn't attend.

The only one who did turn up to the public meeting was Labour opposition leader Kevin Mills.

Cllr Kevin Mills
Cllr Kevin Mills

Trader Robin Burkhardt said: "People who could answer our questions have not turned up. We have no faith in people who won't come and face the music. They have not helped anyone here."

Mr Burkhardt thanked Cllr Mills for attending and told him: "Dover District Council did not give the time of day to listen to people's stories but you did.

"They couldn't be bothered - it's a disgrace."

Cllr Mills said the council's cabinet had decided not to directly fund this project and told traders: "The councillors making the decision need to be here but I am happy to work with you,

"I also said to officers: 'Why are you not turning up, you have a responsibility to be present.'"

Keith Sansum: "People in Dover believe in this project." Picture: Tony Flashman
Keith Sansum: "People in Dover believe in this project." Picture: Tony Flashman

Keith Sansum, a Co-Innovation customer and former district councillor, told the meeting: "People in Dover believe in this project. The council doesn't want to fund it but people out there support it."

Dover MP Natalie Elphicke has openly supported the project.

She said after the meeting: "I have been pleased to support this worthwhile initiative. This project’s success is a testament to hard work and the community spirit of our area.

"I worked closely with Dover District Council when the Government's Covid business support grants were allocated, which included financial support for the Co-Innovation project.

A spokesman for Dover District Council now says: "We continue to work closely with the Co-Innovation Centre, and the leader and chief executive of DDC and colleagues met and spoke to Dover Big Local Trading on Thursday before the public meeting, to provide the latest information.

"We understand that the operators of the site are seeking a new venue and we will be pleased to support them with their move, and we are looking at ways we can support them financially, subject to receipt of a suitable business plan."

"DDC was very clear from the start that it had purchased the building as a strategic development site and any use was strictly temporary.

"The cabinet decision in 2018 for this temporary use was initially for a 12 month period only. We have been working with partners to help explore other possible locations, and we continue to work with businesses to offer support and guidance.

"We are not in a position to release further information on plans for the future of the site at this stage."

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