AFTER a difficult year at Downpatrick’s St Patrick Centre (SPC), with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over its head, a new dawn is breaking.
Under the leadership of the Centre chairman, businessman John Carson, efforts have been made to secure the Centre’s future as a major tourist hub in Northern Ireland and in Down District for the forseeable future.
2012 proved to be a difficult year as the recession continued its impact on tourism, but now the SPC is being steered on a new path by Mr Carson who took over as Chairman in April, and there is an effort ongoing to secure funding of £125,000 per year for the next three year Service Level Agreement currently being negotiated with a Council Director and the legal team.
At a recent meeting of the Council’s Culture and Economic Development Committee (Tuesday 18 December 2012), Mr Carson was accompanied by Centre Director Dr Tim Campbell, thanked the Council on behalf of the SPC Board of Trustees for their continued support.
Mr Carson said: “Since becoming Centre Chairman, I have taken on the challenge of bringing The Saint Patrick Visitor Centre from the threat of closure to a now positive operating position. The future of the Centre is now on a more secure basis. We are now back on track. There has been in-depth dialogue between Centre management and Council officials leading to a new working relationship.”
Mr Carson explained that he had a series of meetings in recent months with all political parties, local church leaders, Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Government departments and other agencies and stressed his approach is totally cross-community, cross-party and inter-denominational.
Mr Carson emphasised: “The Saint Patrick Centre building is now over 12 years old and is in need of maintenance. Over the next 3-5 years this itself will be a demand on resources. The Centre is essential to supporting tourism in Down District and is the hub of all tourist and Christian Heritage sites in the area. I am extremely pleased with the increase in visitor numbers this year and it clearly shows that we are now reaping the benefits of aggressive marketing, especially in USA. An enormous effort is still required over the next two years to develop the company into 2015 and beyond.
“There is a knock on effect to local businesses as the visiting tourists do spend in local shops. Local hotels also sometimes benefit.”
Regarding Down District Council funding, Mr Carson said that he has looked in detail at the financial aspects of the company over the past eight months and is confident that he can guide the centre financially over the next three years with the existing Council grant of £125,000 to become a successful operation. However, Mr Carson did nor pull any punches when he said he believed any reduction in this grant would have a detrimental effect on the financial viability of the company and this would have a knock-on effect on the growth of tourism in Down District. Mr Carson went on to explain that the Director and himself were exploring other avenues to obtain funding such as with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and the Office of the First Minister in Stormont Castle.
Dr Tim Campbell speaking at the committee meeting said that the core business of the centre is focused around tour coaches, cruise ships etc. This year 260 coaches visited the centre and 80% of the visitors were from the USA. He explained to councillors there was a growing body of contacts made in London, Glasgow, Dublin and all across the USA from Milwaukee to Phoenix. “I market the Centre and use social media methods such as webinars and email blasts to get the message out. In all cases, the cost of trips to these venues abroad is being met by Tourism Ireland, Coach Operators and Friends of St. Patrick Groups in America, and is at no cost to the St Patrick Centre. In America we have a growing number of Chapters and the volunteers help raise valuable dollars for our marketing programme.
“Bus tour operators regularly say to me that the welcome they receive at the St Patrick Centre is the best they receive in Northern Ireland. At the moment we are talking to three bus companies who take visitors to the North from Dublin and this again looks promising. We also have a number of school visits through the year. But we have also received the support of Cardinal Collins in Toronto,” said Mr Campbell and he added that there was a very successful Young Embassador programme involving exchanges which again was funded from America.
The Chairman of Down District Council’s Cultural and Economic Development Committee, Councillor Anne McAleenan, said: “The whole idea of forging a new partnership between Down District Council and The Saint Patrick Centre Board was to ensure the Centre receives more prominence and visibility to potential tourists and to help our visitors get the most from their experience of this wonderful town and district, and although it is still early days, we are absolutely delighted with the estimated footfall figures which show signs of success for this worthwhile project.“
Down District Council now has to prepare and approve a three year Service Level Agreement for the St Patrick Centre and this is expected to be in place early in the New Year.