A restored Victorian woollen mill near Sedbergh is launching a community share issue to generate much-needed capital.
Farfield Mill provides studios for weavers, craftspeople and artists, an outlet for designers, galleries hosting exhibitions, a heritage exhibition about the wool industry and heritage looms for use by artisan textile producers.
It had been on the brink of closure.
But an extraordinary general meeting last Saturday approved a rescue plan to transform the mill’s prospects.
Farfield will become a charitable Community Benefit Society, a new type of co-operative, and issue shares to raise £365,000.
The money will secure the mill’s future through investment in a family-friendly heritage experience, in repairs and improvements to the fabric of the building, in new digital infrastructure and in paying off a mortgage.
Farfield has already been pledged £100,000 in match funding from Power to Change, a charity funded by the Big Lottery, leaving £265,000 to raise from community investors who will become member-owners of the new society.
Peter Rothery, chair of the Trust that runs the mill currently, said: “We are delighted that members have given our rescue plan overwhelming support.
“But the really hard work begins when we launch our community share offer. We need to raise the £365,000 before the offer closes at the end of the year. It is vital that we get as many supporters as possible to dig deep and help save this tremendous community asset.”
The rescue plan comes as a lifeline to the 12 staff, the 20 craftspeople – including felt-makers, spinners, potters, jewellers and painters – who rent studios at Farfield, and the 60 suppliers who use it as their retail outlet.
In a bid to engage with potential supporters, Farfield is launching a campaign entitled ‘Let’s Share Farfield Mill’.
Individuals, businesses, societies and schools will be able to invest once the share offer opens on September 29th.
A business plan, hammered out by a new board of trustees, forecasts an increase in visitors to 20,000 per year helped by an emphasis on education, a diverse events programme and exhibitions to encourage repeat visits.
The mill will run workshops in textile arts and support a wide range of artists and exhibit the work of artists of national and international importance.
The share issue is being handled by Ethex, a financial services company which acts as a conduit for ethical investment.
The minimum investment will be £50 and the maximum £30,000. The society can pay interest up to 3% on investments, when it can afford to.
The trustees believe they can raise the £265,000 they need by attracting around 500 shareholders.
No matter how much they invest, each shareholder member will have one vote and therefore an equal say in the running of the community benefit society.
Farfield operated as a commercial textile mill for almost 200 years until Pennine Tweeds closed in 1992. The following year a committee was set up to save the mill from dereliction. They bought it, restored it and reopened as an arts and heritage centre in 2001.
The project attracted funding from Rural Regeneration Cumbria, local authorities, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Arts Council. Latterly funding dried up and the mill has been running at a loss, kept going by donations.
The last few years have been very difficult but Farfield came through in part thanks to help from the Chamber’s Cumbria Business Growth Hub.
The mill first approached the Growth Hub after Storm Desmond hit in December 2015 bringing widespread disruption to Cumbria.
Carole Nelson, Company Secretary, said: “Storm Desmond had a major effect on us. Sedbergh was cut off for three days.
“Although the mill wasn’t flooded, the building wasn’t equipped to deal with the level of rainfall we had.
“The roof is the size of a couple of tennis courts and the guttering couldn’t cope. Water was travelling down the walls and penetrating through.”
Growth Hub adviser Adrian Luckham helped Farfield Mill apply for a flood recovery grant but that proved to be only the start of his involvement.
Carole said: “Adrian has been great for us because he has such a wide experience of business. When our then chairwoman, Anne Pierson, first met him she was throwing all sorts of questions at him.
“He helped us develop new activities to promote the Mill and increase visitor numbers, and he helped us when we were drawing up a business plan and cash-flow forecast to support a grant application to South Lakeland Council.”
Farfield also took advantage of the Employees Support in Skills project, launched by the Growth Hub in 2016 to help businesses upskill their workforce and train a new generation of apprentices.
Businesses with up to 250 staff (full-time equivalent) were able to access free training. The scheme covered business sectors from manufacturing to hospitality, farming to retail, hairdressing to digital services.
Carole said: “We used it for all sorts from basic clerical skills to first aid. It was fantastic because we couldn’t afford to pay commercial rates for training.”
She added: “Charitable trusts can be quite opaque. They produce accounts each year that look to all intents and purpose okay but in reality they’re entirely dependent on the capacity of the volunteers who are running them.
“The Growth Hub helped us build that capacity. We were struggling and the help we received helped turn things around.
“It’s been a tremendous fight but we’ve got there.”
Suzanne Caldwell, Deputy Chief Executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, said: “This example shows the breadth of very different businesses throughout Cumbria that the Growth Hub works with, from businesses like Farfield to engineering, agricultural and digital businesses.”
To find out how Cumbria Business Growth Hub can help your business, click here or call 0844 257 84 50.
Farfield Mill is far from being the only Cumbrian business to embrace the co-operative model.
Other examples include The Old Crown at Hesket Newmarket, the first co-operatively owned pub in the country, bought by its customers in 2003.
The adjoining Hesket Market Brewery is also a community venture.
In 2014 a co-operative took over Carlisle World Shop, a specialist outlet for Fairtrade goods, when founder Lorna Strong retired.
Other examples include the Baywind Energy Co-operative, which raised £1.8m to fund a windfarm on the Furness Peninsula, and a community-owned hydro-power scheme at Killington, between Sedbergh and Kendal.
The funding that supports the Growth Hub comes from a range of sources including Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, the European Regional Development Fund, Allerdale Borough Council (Sellafield Ltd’s Allerdale SIIF, distributed by Allerdale Borough Council), Barrow Borough Council (FEDF Coastal Communities Fund Supply Chain Initiative, the Coastal Communities Fund is funded by the Government with income from the Crown Estates marine assets; it is delivered by the Big Lottery Fund on behalf of UK Government), Carlisle City Council, Eden District Council, South Lakeland District Council and Cumbria LEP.
The Growth Hub is receiving up to £2,528,767 of funding from the England European Regional Development Fund as part of the European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme 2014-2020. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is the Managing Authority for European Regional Development Fund. Established by the European Union, the European Regional Development Fund helps local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, create jobs and local community regenerations. For more information, click here.
The Employee Support in Skills project is receiving up to £8.5m of funding from the European Social Fund (ESF) as part of the 2014-2020 European Structural and Investment Funds Growth Programme in England. The Department for Work and Pensions is the Managing Authority for the England ESF programme. Established by the European Union ESF funds help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support innovation, businesses, skills development, job creation, social inclusion and local community regenerations. For more information click here.