Sustainability is much more than a buzz word for adventure park Colin Glen and its chief executive Colin O’Neill.
It is the business at the heart of the Colin Glen Trust, which was set up in 1989 to restore the area. At that point, the 240-acre wooded glen had been neglected and was a site for fly-tipping and illegal landfill.
The trust worked to turn it into an inviting forest park, with the adventure park element later providing a revenue stream to make it sustainable.
However, funding was a challenge from the beginning, Colin says.
“The foundation of the organisation is about creating an area which is environmentally sustainable, with the backing of government funding from what was the Department of Environment.”
Yet even at his first meeting with the NI Environment Agency, he had heard that its funding was being cut. That spurred the trust to look for more avenues for financial support, leading to it taking over the old Dunmurry Golf Course.
Colin adds: “We looked at what we could do for very little money and we put in 3G pitches, which there was big demand for at the time. We built a driving range for a couple of hundred thousand pounds, so we started to generate funding but it was nowhere near enough.”
The trust didn’t own the land but was operating it on a 25-year lease, which was close to expiry.
“The big thing was putting in place a plan for long-term sustainability so that we would not be worrying about a cut in funding. We were aiming for an ability to stand on our own two feet.
“But the core objective remains that we exist to protect, maintain and enhance the environment. The 240-acre site that we have here has been called Belfast’s green lung and the jewel in the crown of green space within Belfast.”
It’s now a fully-fledged adventure park, with features such as a 3G sports dome, an alpine coaster called the Black Bull Run, rope courses and Ireland’s longest zipline.
“They’re all there so that we can sustain, enhance and maintain the forest park, the flora and fauna and protected species we have, and projects like tree planting and invasive species management,” Colin says.
Eventually, ownership of the land was transferred so that Colin Glen now owns the forest park land on a 999-year lease — a process that Colin says was eased by the transfer of the area out of Lisburn council to Belfast City Council.
The adventure park also strives to be sustainable by using electric vehicles where possible, such as electric-powered grass cutting machines on the golf course.
It had hoped to install a hydro turbine as a source of energy, but this turned out not to be viable and it is looking at solar power and a wind turbine.
Users are encouraged to use public transport when coming to the adventure park, and there are talks about joining a greenway with Belfast Hills.
Colin also aims to educate young people and corporate groups about the environment, and provides opportunities to take part in outdoor activities.
It has also become a member of Leave No Trace Ireland, which teaches the public how to enjoy the countryside and green spaces while leaving them unspoilt for others. It’s now able to offer Leave No Trace training to other organisations.
There was some hope that the park could have seen a surge of visits from people who have opted to holiday at home rather than face the chaos of international flights over the summer, but Colin says the cost-of-living crisis may have an impact on plans.
Despite this, the business is looking to the longer term.
“We do not want to stand still and want to develop to maybe include accommodation, to add more trails and to look more closely at things like wellness, mindfulness and forest bathing, so that you’re creating a range of activities for lots of people.
“We’re looking at developing a mindfulness trail, which is a side of things that became even more important in lockdown. We always stayed open and the park was never busier.
“There is a need for people in an urban environment to have that sort of respite, so we received funding from National Lottery and we’re in the process of developing the mindfulness trail. That would be useful, and also very poignant within this part of Belfast.”
Plans for developing accommodation are also wide-ranging.
“We’re looking at a centre with dorm-style accommodation and twin rooms with en suites, as well as campsites and stands for mobile caravans.
“We’re talking to one or two companies to see how different business models stack up. Given our location, people could spend a couple of days. If you want to go and play nine holes of golf as opposed to going down a zipline or going for a walk in the forest park, we’ve got that too.
“It’s the uniqueness and broad range of activity that suits everybody.”