28/01/2011

Jobs Boost As Causeway Centre Begins

Just over six months after preliminary developments took place, large-scale construction work has now started on the new Giant's Causeway World Heritage Site Visitors' Centre.

Hundreds of jobs are to be created as construction work gets underway, with the target opening date set for summer 2012.

"Across the lifetime of the project we're creating somewhere in the region of 500 jobs," Project Manager Raymond Gilroy told UTV yesterday.

He said that the site at capacity "will have around 100 operators working".

It has been over a decade now since the famous north coast attraction and World heritage site has had a visitor centre.

About 750,000 people visit it every year and in 2008, it was nominated as one of the world's seven natural wonders as the Causeway is a jagged promontory of hexagonal rocks created by a volcanic eruption as much as 60 million years ago.

Previewed with a royal visit that saw Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex in Co Antrim for a briefing on the proposed new visitor experience last June, construction on a centre designed by Dublin architects Heneghan Peng has now begun in ernest.

The development is due to be finished by summer next year with the royal pair told that the project will cost around £18.5m and that the complex will be hidden from the coastal landscape by a grass roof - but that the Causeway itself will remain open to visitors while it's being built.

This week, full-scale development has now started and follows both the Prince's visit and the official sod cutting a few weeks later, last July.

That ceremony marked the commencement of the first stage of works on the project with NI Tourism Minister Arlene Foster joined by the National Trust's Director for Northern Ireland, Hilary McGrady to celebrate a first significant milestone in the project.

That initial phase of work involved making changes to the local Causeway Hotel to allow it to be used as the location for temporary visitor facilities during the building of the new facility - although the hotel will continue to operate as a hotel throughout the build process.

Builders Gilbert-Ash delivered those 16 weeks of work with a further phase of activity - the enabling works - also now finished.

This involved extending the car park in front of the Causeway Hotel, changing the use of Innisfree Farm to become an additional car park, installing a series of variable message signs in the wider Causeway area, and relining the car park at Dundarave in Bushmills to allow for a 'park and ride' bus service.

All of that work had to be completed prior to the main building project for the new centre commencing. Commenting at the beginning of the work, National Trust Regional Director, Hilary McGrady, said: "This is such an important day for the Giant's Causeway, the local community and the people of Northern Ireland."

The original visitor centre burned down during a fire in 2000 with the then Stormont Environment Minister Sammy Wilson giving his backing to the National Trust's proposals for a new visitor centre in January 2009 - although that proved controversial with calls for a Planning Inquiry in some quarters.

However, the DUP Minister - who is now Finance Minister - said: "I have weighed up all options including the merits of referring this application to the Planning Appeals Commission, either on its own or conjoined with a hearing into the previous unsuccessful application from a private developer," said the Minister.

"Neither of these options would be of any public benefit and would introduce further delay into the provision of the facility and lengthen the already unacceptably long period during which our top tourist attraction has been without a visitors' centre.

"I have authorised a Notice of Opinion to approve the National Trust application," he added, at the time.

However, the whole process initially attracted controversy around two different planning applications and allegations of partiality in respect of a developer's plans and said to involve senior local politicians.

See: Causeway Centre Takes First 'Giant' Step

See: Prince Takes Giant Steps

See: Trust's £18m Causeway Centre Approved

(BMcC/GK)

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