Evangelical church's 97-acre plan 'could end up killing town centre' in Ballymena
An evangelical church's plans for a new 97-acre development on the outskirts of Ballymena could kill off the struggling town centre, it has been claimed.
The Gateway project at Ballee will provide a business park, training, social and student housing, a nursing home, a church, hotel and retail premises.
However, opponents of the scheme say it will take trade away from the town centre - which is already suffering from low occupancy rates.
The scheme has been funded by a partnership involving the Wright Group - which makes London's double decker buses in a factory in nearby Galgorm - local businesses and an anchor retail tenant, and has been part-funded by the sale of the Green Pastures church.
The old premises of the church - led by Pastor Jeff Wright, son of Wright Group founder William - will become the new headquarters of the manufacturing company, while the church will move out to the Ballee land parcel it bought for £4m. There are claims that 250 construction jobs will be created, with the finished scheme supporting 1,000 jobs.
One hundred annual training and apprentice places with Wright Group have been pledged, as well as 485 care places.
But more than 20 objections to the scheme have been lodged, among them Ballymena Chamber of Commerce. It said that if approval was given "this will have serious ramifications for the future to Ballymena town centre".
In his own objection, TUV leader Jim Allister said: "As we all know, sadly, the once-bustling town centre of Ballymena has been under immense trading pressure.
"The transfer of yet further retail to an out-of-town location could only impact adversely on an already struggling town centre."
But Mark Donley, director of Compassion Ministries, part of the conglomerate behind the development, said priority would be placed on jobseekers in most need.
"Our criteria is that people are available, that they want a new start, that they want to refocus on life, they want to rebuild the foundation of their life and their relationship with God," he said.
Warwick McCullough from HPA Architecture said: "The Wright Group has been in Ballymena for many decades and would not do anything to harm the town centre."
"This is not an out-of-town retail park, it is within the boundaries of the town."
Jeff Wright is a former chief executive of bus-builder the Wright Group, founded by his father and grandfather.
He says he left the company and founded his church in 2007 after he saw a nine-year-old girl on drugs in a Ballymena housing estate and felt compelled to help.
The plans for the Ballee site - which Jeff Wright says that God told him to purchase - have been dubbed Project Nehemiah, named after the Old Testament figure who rebuilt Jerusalem.