ONE of the driving forces behind the rebirth of Tavistock Guildhall as a major tourist attraction has revealed how at least part of the listed building nearly became flats.

That scheme was put forward as the town’s former court and police station staggered towards dilapidation after it was abandoned by its former occupants a decade ago.

However,, Harry Smith, the chairman of the town council’s budget and policy instead put his weight firmly behind a scheme to convert the building into an interpretation centre to tell the story of Tavistock’s mining heritage and the people who lived it. Despite setbacks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, which delayed the completion of the £1.7-million project, he kept his eyes on the prize.

This year, a long-held dream came true when Cllr Harry Smith became the first committee chairman to sit in the restored magistrates’ seat in the old courthouse. That was a far cry from when Cllr Smith paid a visit to the town council-acquired building after its last occupants shut the doors behind them.

‘When I first saw it, ten years ago, more or less, and my stomach just dropped,’ he said. ‘There was so much work to do. People sometimes say why we did the project, but the fact is that it would still cost us money if it had been left as it was.

‘It was owned by the Devon Historic Buildings Trust and there was an application to build residential (units) on at least part of the site, but I felt that would have been a great loss to the town. The other problem would have been parking, because there wasn’t any. You couldn’t very well ask someone to pay to leave their car somewhere all day.

‘I would be the first to admit that we could have done more with the Guildhall project to the rear of the building, but there comes a time when you’ve got to face reality,’ he said, admitting that £400,000 in savings had to be made to the original plans.

While the town council owns the building, the £1.7-million project is run by the Tavistock Heritage Trust and Cllr Smith said: ‘The partnership with the trust has been a great success. We own the building, but we don’t have the expertise to run it and what they have done with it I feel is something which is to the value of the town.’

Cllr Smith said it was sometimes difficult to keep the faith, especially with the amount of money the authority sunk into the project. This received a major boost with a near-million grant by the Heritage Lottery Trust. West Devon Borough Council also provided funds to buy interactive kit.

Cllr Smith said: ‘Some of the councillors who helped get this done are no longer councillors, but everybody stuck at it. In a sense, I’m relieved it’s finished, but I am very pleased with what has been achieved.’