RESCUE efforts are under way to save the Morpeth and District Chamber of Trade after a crisis in its finances.
The Herald reported last week that the group feared its funds had been virtually wiped out in a suspected theft, raising concerns about its ability to continue certain activities in the town, such as Morpeth In Bloom and Christmas light displays.
Chamber Treasurer Mark Trill, 60, was arrested on suspicion of theft on Wednesday, March 28 and has been bailed pending further inquiries.
Now business and community leaders have united in their determination to keep the chamber going, with hopes of raising £10,000 this year alone.
And department store owner Richard Rutherford has offered to underwrite the chamber’s bills to ensure it is business as usual.
At an emergency meeting last week, he said: “I will underwrite what we need to keep the chamber running and get Britain In Bloom sorted so that we don’t feel the effects.
“Nothing changes, we do what we normally do. I will underwrite it until we get the funds back in place.”
The meeting was called to inform chamber members of the financial crisis facing the group after investigations revealed that up to £22,000 could be missing.
Bank statements show there is now just over £6,000 in the accounts when normally there would be £26,000 to £28,000.
And the chamber has further discovered that it still has an outstanding bill to pay of around £3,000 for last year’s Christmas lights. Members heard that Morpeth Town Council had offered to write off the amount, but the business group will insist on paying it back when it can.
Traders spoke of their shock at the situation, but they remained upbeat about the chamber’s chances of recovery.
Geoff Proudlock said: “Something terrible has happened and we have lost all our funds — 25 to 30 years has gone into building them up and we have very little money left, but we are going to get on with this.
“I am so pleased to hear people saying that it is going to bring the chamber together and let’s hope that it does.
“Hopefully, Golf Day will bring in £3,000, and Fair Day will give us £5,000 at least, so there is £8,000. I and a few other members can have barbecues and parties to make another few thousand and we will get £10,000 this year, which we will put back into the coffers.
“Let’s be positive. We’re not just going to sit on our backsides, we’re going to do something about it.”
Jimmy Bell, The Lamb Man, agreed. “The chamber has to come out of this stronger and we have to take it forward. The chamber still has some money, it is still strong, still positive and has a lot of support from the councillors,” he said.
Members were also cheered by news that a major sponsor may have been found for Fair Day, and chartered surveyor Charles Robinson reported that Northumbrian Water had offered £2,500 towards Morpeth In Bloom after he met officials to discuss the recent town centre roadworks.
He said: “I did happen to mention that the town was entered into Britain In Bloom this year and hopefully we would win something, but with businesses closing and suffering as a result of the roadworks it has been reported that they might be cutting down on hanging baskets because people can’t afford them.
“It would be a great step forward if Northumbrian Water could make some contribution and I have been told they are prepared to give a donation of £2,500 to plug the gaps for baskets where there are empty shops.
“That is a bit of good news.”
Chamber Chairman John Beynon offered his resignation as a result of the financial crisis, saying: “As Chairman, the buck stops with you.”
But members gave a unanimous vote of confidence.
Les Sage said: “I have been a member of the chamber for 40 years and I’m 100 per cent behind John and I don’t want him to even suggest that he resigns.
“I propose he stays in the position because we don’t put any blame on him at all.”
The meeting was also attended by town and county councillors, as well as Greater Morpeth Development Trust Chief Executive Dave Lodge.
Mr Beynon, who thanked people for their support, said: “I am heartened by the way everybody has come together, not just the chamber members, but our councillors and others.”
After the meeting, town and county councillor Andrew Tebbutt said: “As a local councillor I think the chamber of trade does a very important job and I am concerned and disturbed at what it is going through at the moment.
“I hope that it will quickly get through this crisis and continue to serve the valuable function that it gives to the town.”