Chinese investors want to turn Sheffield's Central Library into the city's first five star hotel.
The Sichuan Guodong Group - with which Sheffield Council signed a 60-year deal in June - has been given 12 months to explore plans to redevelop the Grade II-listed building.
Should the project go ahead, the Graves Gallery would remain, most likely moving to the ground floor, but the council would move the library service to a more modern home elsewhere in the city centre.
The council says that, without using the money from China, it would need to spend around £30 million of taxpayers’ money to revamp the building to 21st century standards.
Sichuan Guodong’s plans for a £30 million residential development off West Bar, near Aizlewood’s Mill, along with an education partnership and trade deals with two Chinese cities have also been revealed in a report ahead of a cabinet meeting on November 30.
The council’s deputy leader Leigh Bramall said a five star hotel was ‘key’ in order for the city to compete with other cities for investment.
“Sichuan Guodong have approached us to say their initial preference is the Central Library building,” he added.
“We are aware that is a much-loved building so we want to manage that carefully.
“We have no idea if it’s going to be viable. We have agreed on a 12-month exclusivity period to establish if it’s a goer or not.
“It’s an exciting opportunity because it has the potential to tick an awful lot of boxes that are huge positives for the area.”
The library building - which opened in 1934 - is in a poor state of repair. The original concrete is crumbling in places, and although it is not unsafe, other factors such as the presence of asbestos mean it could take as much as £30 million to bring up modern standards.
The council sees the Chinese plan as a way of both fulfilling its ambition for a top-of-the-range hotel and creating the opportunity to rehouse the library service in a new fit-for-purpose city centre home.
The aim is also to free up public funds currently being spent on the library building, while bringing in upwards of £1 million in business rates from the hotel - which could then be spent on frontline services.
“This offers the opportunity to preserve and give the building a long-term use,” said Coun Bramall.
“If it proves viable it will deliver a five star hotel, which will bring a significant number of jobs. It helps to plug a gap in the city’s offer.”
Coun Bramall said the hotel would not just benefit rich visitors to Sheffield but would be part of a growing city ‘jigsaw’.
“To create jobs for the city you need people to bring more money and to locate businesses in the city,” he said.
“You want existing businesses to create more jobs.
“Sheffield’s economy is relatively weak because we don’t have enough money moving around and being spent in the city.
“Hotel jobs include hospitality, conferencing, management. And when big companies are looking at which city to locate in, they look at good transport, nice environment, retail, and hotel accommodation that visitors to our businesses want.”
Cabinet member for community services and libraries, Jack Scott, said the council would be ‘open and transparent’ about the future of the library service.
“I can give absolute assurances that no matter what the outcome here, there will always be a city centre library in Sheffield.
“We will be using this 12 month period to scope out options for where we want to locate the service if the deal goes ahead, and are talking to people in Sheffield about what they would like to see.”
If the deal falls through, the service would remain in the Central Library building.
Dona Womack is chairman of the JG Graves Charitable Trust. The Graves Gallery was created from a JG Graves bequest.
Dona said: “This is a wonderful opportunity to breathe new life into this iconic building and we are pleased that early plans suggest that JG Graves’ legacy will remain publicly accessible and at the heart of the city for generations to come.”
A planning application for the West Bar development could be submitted as early as January. This would be led by Sichuan Guodong, and would fit in with the council’s vision for the area that also includes the existing Riverside Business District and West Bar Square, a proposed £175 million mixed use project from Urbo.
Coun Bramall said: “The proximity to Kelham Island makes it very attractive. It’s our land but very much their plan.”
The council is working on a pioneering partnership with the government of Chengdu, Sheffield’s sister city and the home of Sichuan Guodong.
Sheffield firm Bond Bryan, which designed Oasis Academy Don Valley, will build a sister school in Chengdu. The two schools will then begin a partnership which will involved Sheffield children learning about Chinese culture and expanding their existing Mandaran lessons.
“We understand this may be the first Chinese state school that specialises in the English language,” said Coun Bramall.
“This is a big contract going to a Sheffield company.”
Sheffield has agreed trade links with the Chinese cities of Nanchang and Daquing.
Nanchang is a city of more than two million people, and is a major hub for the aerospace, automotive, healthcare and outdoor recreation sectors.
“They are interested in what we are doing with the Outdoor City,” said Coun Bramall. “We are seen as being a leader with that brand.”
Daquing grew around the oil and gas industries and is now a major centre for renewable energy. Its links with Sheffield developed through World Snooker.
“There are opportunities for Sheffield-based companies in terms of technology for oil and gas, but also increasingly renewables,” said Coun Bramall.
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