It has been another week of intrigue in the great debate about Hitchin Town’s Top Field ground. After proudly announcing the club cannot be evicted for at least 25 years, documents have been strategically leaked that add to the general confusion about the whole saga.
The Midweek Mercury reported this week that a “secret” plan to develop Top Field into a supermarket site could have netted the Cow Common Trust a share of a near-£7m profit. This dates back to 2005, some six years before the scheme became more broadly known. More than £9m would have been spent on a new ground which the club’s landlords described as a “win-win situation for the people of Hitchin and charitable sport in Hitchin”. The last part of that quote demands inquiry, as in no way can Hitchin Town be described as purveyors of “charitable sport” given its semi-professional status.
The Mercury also revealed that the club had put forward plans to partially develop the Top Field site for housing in 2004. In reality, unless somebody stumps up substantial sums of donated money, the only way Top Field can be rebuilt is probably through a partial development, either commercially or residentially. The question is, should that happen, will there be a round of nimbyism in SG4?
At the same time, the club is now trying all angles to raise the necessary funds that can transform a dilapidated stadium into a fit-for-purpose modern arena. It’s a tall order, for piecemeal development will require far greater sums than the club has traditionally been able to raise.
You sense tactics have changed, however. The flyer handed out at the club’s Easter home game against Cambridge City suggested there’s a new tone at the top. While the narrative at the December march revolved around stopping Tesco from destroying the economy of a small town, the club is now turning to the condition of its stands and terraces: “We have the challenge of rebuilding the club’s facilities, as were the club to fold due to the state of the facilities, it could reopen the possibility of Top Field being taken for commercial development.” Tenure is one thing, but Top Field as it is cannot go on for long, no matter how much the nostalgists express their affection for the site.
This puts the ball very much back in the club’s hands. The landlords, presumably, are not responsible for the upkeep of the ground and therefore, with a relatively long lease in place, it means Hitchin can seek grants and loans that will help fund the refurbishment of Top Field. But grants do not come without conditions. A sizeable chunk (as much as 50%) has to be raised by the club itself. With the club needing new dressing rooms, stands and a clubhouse, the sums could run into seven figures or at least high six figures.
To Hitchin’s credit, they are exploring all options, the latest being Crowdfunding. Most people receiving a flyer may not have even heard of such a scheme, indeed heads were being scratched at the Cambridge game and eyebrows raised at the pressure target of £ 25,000 to be secured within eight weeks of launch. With around £ 6,000 already raised for the so-called “fighting fund”, there is an opportunity, surely, to put this already-banked cash to good use? And if all else fails, perhaps the club could go down the route of a share issue?
Crowdfunding is the practice of financing a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically by the internet. There are three players in most Crowdfunding models: the initiator; the supporters; and a moderator. There are a number of types of crowd funding: pure donations; debt crowdfunding where investors get their money back with interest; and equity crowdfunding where people invest in an opportunity in exchange for equity. Money is exchanged for shares. It remains to be seen how the Hitchin project manifests itself. Nevertheless, Crowdfunding has proved to be a successful means of raising capital and has grown significantly in recent years. It will certainly provide a barometer of community feeling towards the club, although the march, public meeting and turnout for games suggests there is a healthy concern for the club’s future.
Meanwhile, the Cow Commoners appear to have gone to ground. There has been little noise coming from them since the club triumphantly declared it was going nowhere. Rumours abounded they had resigned en masse, that they had actually been beaten into submission by Andy Melvin and Roy Izzard’s domination of the public agenda. Another school of thought is that they are keeping their powder dry. While everyone was expecting a long drawn out campaign, it has actually been a matter of weeks. Or is this merely the “phoney war” – the calm before the storm? Whatever the reason, it is unlikely that the latest revelations from the local media will be the last in this complex and unfathomable story. At the moment, it’s still 1-0 to Hitchin.
*Apologies to the Human League