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THIS WEEK Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle: Resignation of Prime Minister

COMMUNITY Return of the Polyphony Vocal Ensemble

BUSINESS Ten local food establishments sign up to Pevensey Food Festival

image credit: Christine Racher

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INTERVIEW: Jason Rolf: Plans for the Mint House
I had worked out it was just about viable to take on and 24 hours later I was the new owner

In the wide ranging interview, Jason talks about the moment that he decided to buy the Mint House, up to the first stage in clearing the site, key winter repairs and beyond. He reveals the plan to see the historic Mint House put on the creative industries map in the South East. The interview was conducted over the period of a month from 12 August—16 September, beginning with an email exchange, a phone call, research and the setting and answering of a series of ten key questions about the vision and enterprise behind the plan.

1. The auction
Was going to the auction a very big decision that took a long-time to make or something more like a recent decision based on research. Do you want to say anything about your thinking at the time?

I’d spotted The Old Mint House earlier in the year when it came to auction previously but I was busy with another project so when it came up again I decided to investigate further. I look at a lot of prospective commercial properties and they have to make long-term financial sense. At the Old Mint House there were clearly a lot of issues that would need attention and it was going to be difficult to evaluate quickly especially with the auction only a few weeks away. On top of that the years it had remained vacant meant it was being slowly engulfed by vegetation, some of which had made its way inside the property. After downloading the full legal pack and reading through every document I spent evenings and weekends contacting anyone who might offer up some helpful advice and information. Much like the viewing, this brought good and bad news but with just one day till the auction I had worked out it was just about viable to take on and 24 hours later I was the new owner.

2. Opportunity and challenge
You mentioned that you saw the decision as both an opportunity and a challenge, do you feel much the same way now, what has the last month done in terms of framing up any ideas about the building or are things still too early to see the shape of any idea or ideas emerging?

Probably still too early to say for sure, it will take a lot of careful investigation until I’ll know for sure what I’m up against. The rear buildings are in decent shape which is good but they are wrapped in a cloak of ivy and bramble which is taking a lot of effort to remove. Once this is cleared from the buildings it’ll then be possible to start clearing gutters and drains and anything else which may make the building suffer further during the winter months.

With regards my intention for the site, it’s always been to reinstate it as it was in the past with the rear being small workshops complemented by small offices in The Old Mint House – a shop won’t really work because of the lack of footfall. The last month hasn’t really changed this view but it’s been very interesting to see more of the property as the vegetation is cut back.

3. Applause Performance Agency
You talked about the support given on a previous project to the company Applause and their work with theatre across Kent and Sussex. Of course this was the agency behind the very successful Nicholas Collett production, the one man Shakespeare show at the Royal Oak and castle in Pevensey in 2017. This was a brilliant production and setting. You must feel mighty proud that as a company you were the initial investors behind Applause, and we note that Applause has won a major Arts Council Grant in January this year. Working with the creative industries is particularly complex because so many arts based organisations do not have a business ethic to their profile, would this be right to say… that the work with the Agency Applause is an example of where your company can step in, identifying both commercial potential and best practice with a view to supporting commercial viability?

Just to clarify, the support for Applause was via a donation and they were already up and running prior to that. They do an excellent job of utilising smaller donations in order to pitch for larger ones and in this instance were able to win a substantial grant. Their application of good business acumen to funding was definitely one of the reasons for donating but more importantly I like the work they do supporting rural communities and the way they go about it, much like the Nicholas Collett production you mentioned.

4. Amati
We note that the name of your company is a kind of violin and that the Chief Executive is an ex-professional violinist. These are unusual credentials and rare for an investment company, generating a philosophy that has interesting roots. Prehaps these roots have lead to work that is both particular and demanding. Bet the boardrooms meetings are a buzz. Do you want to say anything about the company and your place in the company and how your background experience got you to the position of buying the Mint House?

I work for an Edinburgh-based fund manager which specialises in investing into high-growth UK businesses. It was named Amati after the family of Italian violin makers from the 16th century. When I joined in 2010 the partners were already supporting the arts scene up in Scotland so I thought I’d try and do something similar down in the South-East hence the link with Applause. The philosophy behind Amati’s investments is to be patient and invest for the long-term which has been a successful formula for the firm and its clients.

5. The Mint House
Looking at the Mint House, dating from 1348, redundant in economic form for ten years, do you want to say anything about what you see and what inspires you about the possibilities?

I try and avoid getting too emotionally attached to any building because over the long run it has to be able to pay for itself otherwise there is the risk of it eventually sitting empty and deteriorating. The idea is to bring this building back into use quickly before it’s condition worsens and then to slowly work on the finer details over time so that it’s history is well and truly preserved. The challenge is to prioritise the areas which need immediate attention over those that can wait whilst making it viable for occupation. When you see endless amount of damp and crumbling walls from water ingress it can be hard to stay excited but the beautifully panelled rooms and carved fireplace surrounds are just a few of the historic items which makes it all worthwhile.

6. Start up digital companies
We talked a little about your suggestion that a possibility might be a few digital start up companies based in the building. Do you want to say if you have thought any more about these possibilities?

Ideally I’d like to get the building tenanted with the creative arts. The full property is classed as B1 commercial which tends to bring in small, light industries typically from the creative sector. These can be anything from handicrafts right through to digital productions. There is a huge shortage of simple, inexpensive commercial units for small businesses to work from and I believe The Old Mint House would be a fabulous opportunity and location for this.

7. Local creative industries
Might there be any connection directly with the creative industries locally that could prove to be of worth to the Mint House? For example there is a mighty successful co-operative in Eastbourne at the Enterprsie Centre called the Makery. All commercial creative ceramicists and artists, a company of that calibre might see the Mint House as an annexe profile of some description to connect with the international audience coming to Pevensey. Some creative enterprises might see the Mint House as having unique potential as a location to connect with the small but niche visitor profile from across Europe and beyond. You mentioned a project in Tunbridge Wells. Do you want to say anything about this project?

The Tunbridge Wells project was very similar in style and format to what I’ve got planned for The Old Mint House. It doesn’t of course have the added complication of an historic listed-property but it is tenanted with creative businesses who enjoy the small-unit format. It would be nice if I can replicate this in Pevensey and I’ll be building relationships with places like The Makery who already do a great job in central Eastbourne.

8. History in the Making
We talked a little bit about the fact that the Bayeux Tapestry is coming back to this country after nearly 1,000 years in 2022 and that £10 million is to be earmarked to profile the Tapestry in the education sector in this country in the lead up to the arrival of the Tapestry and in the year that Tapestry will be with us in the country. As you may know, Pevensey is in pride of place with a panel on the Tapestry that says. “Ad Pevenesae”. Do you want to say if knowledge of the arrival of the Tapestry informed your decision making about the purchase of the Mint House at all, or anything about what might happen with some aspect of the Mint House?

I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I had no idea the Bayeux Tapestry was going to be coming over to the UK in 2022, however I’ll certainly help the local community celebrate Pevensey’s strong historic links when the time comes.

9. Key people in community
You talked a little about wanting to make contact with some key people in the community, were you thinking of professional people that might be able to help with certain aspects of the development of the site and building? Do you want to say anything about kinds of people that you have in mind?

I always try and use local people and firms when it comes to doing refurbishment work and I’ve engaged with a couple of them in Pevensey already. At this stage I can’t really say the types of specialists I’m going to need but anyone who has historic building skills is welcome to get in touch. I’ve also been fortunate in that my family have been helping out with a lot of the garden work already.

10. Early Days
These are very early days with the Mint House purchase, a guess is that we might be talking about 2-5 years for the development of the project, you talked a little about how you take on long term projects. The first stage, as you explained, to us is a big clean up, getting the property and land tidied up, as you said the site is very overgrown, and fixing any immediate problems which may be causing damage before winter returns. Very early days, how are things going with these plans? Do you want to say if the initial process is informing your thoughts at this stage?

My greatest concern is to get the property watertight before winter sets in. The unusually dry summer we have had has been helpful as it has dried a lot of the exterior walls out and the idea is to take advantage of this by fixing any potential problems early.

Unfortunately the ivy has grown so quickly and profusely around the rear buildings that it’s been impossible to remove without some of the guttering coming off with it. After some clearing it seems that a lot of the walls are in much better condition than I expected but when I have come across a problem it’s quite extreme – for example the chimney is in desperate need of repointing with the correct materials such as lime mortar which helps an old building like this breathe naturally.

Thanks for talking to us. What we are hearing is both exciting and of demonstrable potential value to the historic village of Pevensey and the fragile economic base of the village. Pevensey stands at a unique position in the history of this country.

Given the little that we have heard about your experience, we believe, instinctively, that we are seeing someone who may be able make some extraordinary things happen for Pevensey, both from an economic and creative perspective.

What a place to make these things happen, does not get much better in the locality than the historic Mint House.
—Pevensey Bay Journal,
29 September 2018