Belfast Telegraph

Balmoral farm show 'faces a slow death' unless it relocates

By Linda Stewart

It's been mooted from the early Sixties, but the organisers of the Balmoral Show finally have the go-ahead to take over a 65-acre plot at the former Maze prison.

If the 3,000 members of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society (RUAS) agree to the ambitious plans, the 2013 Balmoral Show will be held at the former jail site.

Meanwhile, RUAS will start developing buildings on the site alongside plans for an NEC-style international exhibition facility, while proposals to found a regional Centre of Rural Excellence there will finally get moving.

The Government has agreed heads of terms to allow the RUAS to buy the site.

The RUAS leadership said it will now be consulting with members on the plan, but warned that if Ireland’s biggest agricultural show stays put in south Belfast, it faces a “slow bleeding to death” similar to the fate of many other agricultural shows across the UK.

It remained tightlipped on the subject of how much the land will cost, saying only that a “commercial value” has been agreed for what has been classed as a brownfield site.

Over the past few years the land has been decontaminated, clearing up the toxic legacy of its prison and military past.

According to reports, RUAS accounts show that £4m has been earmarked.

RUAS chief executive Colin McDonald on Tuesday said that if members approve the plan, the first phase will be to hold next year’s show at the Maze, in marquees and semi-permanent buildings. Work on an arena can start with the necessary licence.

The next phase will involve putting up buildings that are flexible enough to be used for other activities for the 50 weeks of the year they aren’t needed for the show.

The third phase would see the development of an international exhibition facility along the lines of the NEC in Birmingham.

Meanwhile, the society will have to come up with a business plan for the continued use of the King’s Hall, a listed building.

“Only when the King’s Hall site gets redeveloped and we have the capital can we start developing the Maze site to any significant degree. Everything we get out of the King’s Hall site will be invested in the Maze site, but it will be five to 10 years’ time before the end of that development here comes.”

But he warned that there is no viable Plan B that would secure the future of the Balmoral Show.

“If the members say no, it will be economically catastrophic for us. It will be a slow bleeding to death,” he said.

Background

The former airfield at Long Kesh was mooted as a possible location for the Balmoral Show as far back as 1963. Instead, it became the home of the Maze prison until 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement, after which it was wound down.

Plans to build a multi-sports stadium muddled along for a number of years but eventually foundered amid a political row. Meanwhile, the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society, which had been negotiating to move the Balmoral Show there, had to start again from scratch.

If members now agree to the plan, Ireland’s biggest agricultural show will be neighbours with the planned peace-building and conflict resolution centre.

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