FIVE years ago construction on a new town centre community café was finally finished to much fanfare. But it has never been used and today still stands empty.
Now, there are demands, from a borough councillor and the Civic Society, for answers from the owners of the so-called Gateway Café building adjacent to the River Centre.
Cllr Russell Lancaster, who represents Medway ward, said he is becoming ‘increasingly frustrated at the continued emptiness’ of the riverside location and the ‘opaque’ commercial ownership of the site.
He has also raised questions about the intentions of the current owner Servants Fellowship International [SFI] who are the Surrey-based financial arm of the Christian charity Barnabas Aid International.
It is understood that a number of local organisations have approached the owners, who are part of a complex network of Christian organisations, about a tenancy but have been deterred by what they consider to be unfeasible rates.
‘Essentially you’ve got a group of property trustees with no interest in the town. We should demand answers.’
In August last year, SFI sold the main River Centre building to Hillsong, a Pentecostal Australian megachurch, for a figure believed to be in excess of £3million.
Meanwhile Michael Whiteley, the developer who transformed the former Lloyds Bank on Medway Wharf Road into a 64-apartment block, has bought the car park next to the community café for a fee believed to be for around £1million. He is the director of 17 development companies.
In April, Mr Whiteley managed to renew planning permission to develop 73 residential apartments on the site.
Cllr Lancaster is concerned that the Gateway Café, which is still owned by SFI, could go the same way with apartments being built on the land.
“The worry is that there is no obvious interest for a community centre. We’ve got the beautiful Town Lock area which the council have put a lot of time and effort into regenerating and yet an empty community café nearby.
“Essentially you’ve got a group of property trustees with no interest in the town. We should demand answers.
“Christian charities have made money out of all these deals and yet the people of Tonbridge still don’t have a café,” said Cllr Lancaster.
His frustration has beenx echoed by the Chair of the Tonbridge Civic Society, Diane Huntingford. She said: “This café, despite many protests, has never been more than a shell. It is currently owned by Servant Fellowship International [SFI], who do not have an interest in Tonbridge. This could easily be a community asset.”
She also criticised the ‘very limited availability’ of any part of the site for community use compared to the original plans.
The man at the centre of the dispute is Dr Patrick Sookdheo, who has been listed as a director of 13 related companies, including SFI.
The Times has attempted to contact Dr Sookdheo but there has been no response to requests for comment.
No one at Hillsong Church was available for comment.