The Ecos Centre and Nature Park in Ballymena is to receive a £1.6m investment as the Northern Ireland Science Park expands into Mid and East Antrim.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has given approval to an application for change of use of the Ecos centre.
Work will now get underway to provide a facility to complement the existing NI Science Park at Queen’s Island, Belfast, and Fort George, Derry/Londonderry which house over 150 companies.
Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Councillor Billy Ashe, said the development, which is fully supported by the Big Lottery Fund, will give Ecos a key role within the local economy.
Welcoming the project he said: "We look forward to opening the doors in late 2016 when the site will come alive again, not only as a workspace, but also as a visitor attraction where innovation can be seen in action.
"This is something our young people are still missing: the inspiration that science and technology jobs can be possible, right here in Northern Ireland. Ecos will be hosting entrepreneurship programmes, all focused on knowledge-based industries.
He added: "Indeed, there are further opportunities for growth after the first phase is underway, with partnerships with Northern Regional College, Ulster University, schools and local industry also set to be welcomed."
The NI Science Park’s Director of Corporate Services, Mervyn Watley, said he was delighted that approval has now been given.
"This will see the provision of a maximum space of 19,924 sq. ft. over four floors of the Ecos building to be reconfigured to provide Science Park-style shared and private workspaces on commercial but flexible terms, formal and informal meeting spaces and conference facilities alongside quality catering and business support.
"The Centre will be linked to the high speed broadband networks (known as Project Kelvin) which are so important to Science Park tenants and visitors who make use of these connections for collaboration, data sharing and audio-visual links, both within Northern Ireland and on into the USA trunk lines," he explained.
Common space on the ground floor and particularly the circular vestibule will be equipped with interactive digital systems to allow visitors to explore the science, technology and enterprise of the region, past and present, especially in the context of the global issues of sustainability.
Key artefacts and outdoor exhibits will be distributed throughout the adjacent wetland park to inspire curious school groups with local examples of ‘science in action’.
The site will be operated for tenants on licences and leases, on identical terms across all such campuses from Letterkenny, through Derry, Ballymena and Belfast.
Mr Watley added: "Originally as a millennium project – later funded through the Big Lottery Fund - Ecos focused on a major issue for the 21st century: innovations in sustainability. Unfortunately the technology to deliver its own vision was not available or affordable, so visitors to the iconic building and the wet-land park surrounding it have diminished.
"Working with Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, the Northern Ireland Science Park hopes to change that. Indeed, our goals aren’t a million miles apart – the common theme being innovation."
Ecos was initially funded through the Millennium Commission via the Big Lottery Fund and was designed to introduce school pupils and their families and to the concepts of low carbon energy, resource reduction, re-use and recycling.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council has since reviewed the centre, its future purpose and operation. The aim was to increase the footfall to sustain the facilities, working within the vision originally agreed by the Millennium Commission.
The Big Lottery Fund also welcomed the plans for Ecos, recognising the opportunities in working in partnership with NI Science Park and is also delighted that the overall scheme will still allow for public access to interpretative space outlining key environmental themes.