The Leyland Freemasons have been revealed as the preferred bidder to take over the running of Worden Hall in the town.
The group has been in negotiations with South Ribble Borough Council as part of the authority’s search for investors to bring the historic building back into use.
It emerged in March that talks were taking place with a single, unnamed bidder – after five other expressions of interest were ruled out.
The masons say that they would “invest substantially” in the eighteenth century hall and open up much of the ground floor for public use – including weddings and meetings. The Grade II-listed building has been largely disused since 2012.
While council officers are responsible for the ongoing negotiations, cabinet members will have to approve any deal.
And that means the final decision could be determined by whichever party controls the council after next week’s meeting to install a leader in the wake of local elections in the borough.
The Conservative group have lost overall control of the authority, but Colin Clark, currently the party’s cabinet member for assets, says he is “pleased” that the masons are in the running for a 25-year lease on the site.
“Worden Park is a jewel in the crown of South Ribble and [this proposal] could add to it,” Cllr Clark said.
“As an authority, we want to see more people using the hall, so it would be a win-win. It has been costing us money to maintain it unoccupied, so we have to do something about it.”
But Labour group leader Paul Foster – who hopes to be elected as leader of the council in a deal with the Liberal Democrats – was more circumspect, claiming “no deal will be done in the short-term” on his watch.
“We’re aware of the Conservatives’ desire to approve this bid – but as we said at the time, we don’t necessarily consider it the most appropriate use for the hall,” Cllr Foster said.
“We’ll be looking to do a detailed review into all options.”
Mike Pinckard, group vice chairman of the Leyland Masons, said that locals would not be happy if the building were allowed to fall into disrepair.
“Apart from providing our group with somewhere to meet and co-ordinate our charitable work, we see it as an opportunity to provide the community with somewhere to meet – to have their weddings, hold their funerals and for use by local clubs and groups,” Mr. Pinckard said.
“Its location in the centre of the park and listed building status mean it is not suitable for a lot of commercial activity.
“Negotiations are continuing, but we are very much dependent on how important the regeneration of Worden Hall is to the council – and we’re intent on playing our part,” he added.
The Leyland Freemasons are seeking a new meeting place for their more than 300 local members, following the sale their current base at Wellington Park.
In a statement on behalf of South Ribble Borough Council, leader Margaret Smith said: ““Following a recent Cabinet decision, negotiations have progressed with Leyland Masonic Properties with regard to the future of Worden Hall, with consideration being taken to the potential wider community benefit. A further report will be brought back to the new administration’s Cabinet for further consideration once these negotiations have taken place.”