PROPOSALS by retail giant Tesco to open a new supermarket in Sherborne have sparked a major opposition campaign.
The chain last week revealed it had signed an agreement with Torbeg Ltd, freeholders of the Sherborne Hotel.
The site is directly opposite land at Barton Farm, which received planning permission for more than 200 new homes in September.
A spokeswoman for Tesco said a public consultation on any plans for the site will be held in the new year.
Within days a fierce online debate erupted between hundreds of residents and an opposition group – No Thanks Tesco – launched a website and social network accounts.
Public figures John Challis and Melanie Sykes rallied to support the campaign, more than 650 people signed an online petition, and paper copies were distributed in the town centre.
Retail guru Mary Portas also met local traders on Saturday when she visited the town and later appealed for followers on Twitter to oppose the plans.
A spokesman for No Thanks Tesco, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “We all live and work in Sherborne and want to preserve what is special about the town.”
Steven Oxford, 32, a fourth generation business owner of Oxford’s Bakery, founded in Cheap Street, said: “You only have to look at Shepton Mallet or Blandford to see the damage out-of-town retail has done to the high street.”
Others feared the store would threaten the town’s heritage and tourism industry.
Peter Neal, chairman of the Sherborne and District Society for the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), said the news was a “disaster” for the town. The society is seeking special heritage status to protect Sherborne from over development.
He said: “A store on that site would damage the town centre, detract from the heritage setting of the town and lose a hotel which is needed to help tourism.”
Canon Eric Woods, vicar of Sherborne, said closure of the hotel would affect visitors to Sherborne Abbey.
He said: “That’s where our visiting choirs tend to stay. So do the families and friends of those being married in the town. Thankfully, planning guidelines encourage the development of town centre businesses rather than out-of-town retail developments. Let’s hope our elected councillors remember that.
“We can’t run a tourist industry with one small hotel and a few bed and breakfast establishments.”
But not everyone is against a new supermarket. A counter petition – Bring Tesco to Sherborne –– was also set up this week.
Resident Glen Hallett supported the move in an online post. He said: “The town needs this sort of shop, there is nothing in Cheap Street for the working bloke and families.”
Meanwhile, Paul Thornton, managing director of the venue’s operator, Hollybush Hotels, said there was no imminent threat to any employment at the hotel.
He said: “It’s business as usual. We are continuing to take bookings right into 2014.”
Andy Tilsiter, assistant finance manager for Torbeg Ltd, said the company had considered many options before the decision was made.
He said: “We searched for an alternative use for the property following the sharp decline in the hotel and leisure sector. Hollybush Hotels entered into a Creditors Voluntary Agreement earlier this year.”
A spokeswoman for Tesco said a new store would offer greater choice for shoppers, many of whom are currently travelling elsewhere.
She said: “Our proposals are still in their very early stages and we look forward to holding a wide reaching public consultation next year, allowing all residents, community groups and representatives to comment on our proposals ahead of a potential planning application next spring.
“A Tesco store would create in the region of 200 new jobs and offer significant investment in Sherborne.
“As our proposals progress, we are committed to working with the hotel to guarantee a priority job interview for any of the hotel staff interested in working for Tesco.”
A spokesman for West Dorset District Council said no pre-application approaches or planning applications from Tesco had been received.
On Tuesday the No Thanks Tesco Twitter account was temporarily suspended due to “over-activity” – according to a spokesman.
He said Twitter thought it was a spam account because there was so much activity in a short space of time. It is now back online.