Belfast Telegraph

Eleven eyesores targeted as £400,000 spruce-up for two North Coast towns gets under way ahead of Irish Open

By Adrian Rutherford

This is the crumbling eyesore which will disappear from the North Coast skyline as part of an ambitious project to revamp two of Northern Ireland’s most popular seaside towns.

Once a thriving hotel, the Metropole has deteriorated into a derelict shell which casts an ugly shadow over the main approach road into Portrush.

But within days it will be razed to the ground in the first stage of a £400,000 package aimed at tackling dereliction. The cash will be used to demolish some buildings, repair others and landscape gap sites to create urban parks.

Eleven sites in Portrush and Portstewart have been identified, and work will get under way this week. It is part of a scheme to rid both towns of street eyesores in advance of the Irish Open golf championship at Royal Portrush this summer.

Launching the scheme yesterday, Environment Minister Alex Attwood said it was an important step to boost tourism.

“This is about improving the experience for the thousands of tourists who visit the North Coast every year,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

“Later this year, tens of thousands of visitors will come here for the Irish Open and we want to create a good impression. These sites are scars on the beautiful causeway coast and they need to be tackled if we want to boost tourism.”

Mr Attwood said there was a responsibility on developers to clean up derelict sites.

“What concerns me is that we have developers on the North Coast with money to build and develop on the one hand, while on the other, letting sites that they own decay and scar the area,” he added. “I will be calling these developers in, telling them to get their act together and deal with the eyesores they own.”

An urban park will be created at Dunluce Avenue and Kerr Street, while repair work will be carried out to the front of buildings in Lansdowne Crescent.

The Strand Hotel in Portstewart will also be demolished.

Work will begin with the demolition of the Metropole Hotel.

It has lain derelict for five years and was seriously damaged in a fire in 2009.

Kieran Doherty, director of environmental services at Coleraine Borough Council, said removing it was a priority.

“Its location is absolutely pivotal because it is the first thing people see as they drive into Portrush,” he said.

“The intention is to demolish the building and profile the site.”

The Mayor of Coleraine, Alderman Maurice Bradley, said the project was a boost for the area.

“We don’t want to see dilapidated buildings in the main tourist area of Northern Ireland,” he said.

“This is a really big year for the North Coast.

“We have three major events — the Irish Open, the London Olympic Torch relay and the Queen’s Jubilee.

“Then you add on the North West (200), the Milk Cup and the International Airshow and there is a huge amount going on. We have to capitalise on this once in a lifetime opportunity.

“These events will be seen worldwide — it showcases the whole of Northern Ireland PLC — and it is important the borough looks its best.”

Alliance councillor Barney Fitzpatrick said the funding was great news.

“There are a number of derelict buildings that are providing a real eyesore for one of the most picturesque areas of Northern Ireland,” he said.

“With the Irish Open golf tournament coming up in a couple of months this money will ensure that tourists get the best impression of Portstewart and Portrush,” Mr Fitzpatrick added.

A ghostly quiet haunts streets littered with glories of yesteryear

It boasts stunning sea views, miles of golden beaches and draws thousands of tourists every summer. But the outstanding natural beauty of the Portrush coastline contrasts with a town centre which is tired and stuck in a bygone age.

Now the Environment Minister is taking action to transform Portrush from a sleepy seaside resort into a vibrant and bustling town befitting the area’s status as Northern Ireland’s premier tourist destination.

The town, along with Portstewart, will undergo a major facelift ahead of this summer’s Irish Open golf tournament.

The crumbling Metropole Hotel was the backdrop for yesterday’s funding pledge by Alex Attwood, and is among the locations earmarked for change.

Eight of the 11 sites identified for improvement work are situated in Portrush, a town in need of a kickstart.

This can be less apparent during the summer season, when the vast influx of visitors and warm sunshine creates a positive vibe.

But yesterday, emptied by the grey skies and cold mid-March weather, some of the cracks were all too evident.

Like most towns, Portrush has been hit by the recession and the shutters are down on several former businesses.

Hotels lie shut and the town centre, dominated by cafes, amusement arcades and souvenir shops, is ghostly quiet at times.

Several old buildings have also fallen into disrepair, most notably the Metropole site.

Traders and residents believe the funding pledge announced yesterday will be a big step towards revamping the town’s image.

Norman Hillis from R&J Hillis, a clothing store on the main street, said the project was long overdue.

“For years I have had tourists coming into the shop and remarking how dreadful some of the buildings are, so this injection of cash is very welcome,” he said.

“We have the Irish Open coming to town, and there is little point spending millions putting on a good show if the rest of Portrush resembles a disaster area.”

John McKinney, who has lived in the town for over 30 years, is also confident the project can have a positive impact.

“Portrush used to be a great town, but over the last decade or so it has lost a lot of its gloss,” he said.

“The North Coast is a lovely area. You have the Giant’s Causeway and the coastal route, and then people come into Portrush and it’s tired and stale.

“The first thing people see is the Metropole and it’s the worst possible image.”

John Gregg, who owns a souvenir shop in the town centre, said the high number of derelict buildings was a deterrent to visitors.

“You look at the Coleraine Road and there is a whole stack of empty buildings,” he said.

“It gives tourists the wrong impression.”

Further down the town, a group of pensioners sit in a cafe overlooking the seafront, watching huge waves crash into the rocks as they sip cups of tea.

They are more sceptical about the plans.

“It’s all very well tearing buildings down here and there, but the big empty spaces which are left aren’t going to sell Portrush,” said Jim Ryan.

“Look at the Metropole. What is really needed there is a new, top-class hotel, not another empty space.

That is a prime site for someone to invest in.”

Another, Paddy Cavanagh, said changing people’s perception of Portrush is vital.

“Portrush isn’t just about holidays and tourists,” he said. “What we really should be doing is trying to turn Portrush into a town, similar to Coleraine, that can draw in people all year round.

“Between October and March the place is dead. There should be a bigger focus on making it a shopping town.”

Clearly there is work to be done, but the potential is there.

With the Giant’s Causeway and Atlantic coastline on its doorstep, Portrush is just minutes from some of the UK’s most stunning scenery.

The region is also a magnet for golf fans and is already capitalising on Major triumphs by two of its local stars, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke, ahead of the Irish Open coming to Royal Portrush later in the year.

Add in the North West 200, Northern Ireland’s biggest sporting event, the Milk Cup and the International Airshow and it is quite a package.

But image is everything, first impressions are lasting impressions.

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