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Saturday 10 December 2016

Loss of Westport House 'would hit local tourism hard'

Graham Clifford

Published 21/10/2015 | 02:30

Lady Sheelyn Browne at Westport House in Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
Lady Sheelyn Browne at Westport House in Co Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan

The loss of Westport House would devastate the tourist industry in Mayo, according to local business people.

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Nama is currently selling off the €9m loan on Westport House - one of the country's most popular tourist attractions - and has placed it in the Project Arrow bundle. Over 300 locals sought clarity on the issue at a public meeting held in the Westport Town Hall last night.

"We as a community are horrified with what is unfolding," said Shirley Piggins from the Westport Civic Trust.

Independent Councillor Christy Hyland told the meeting: "Every person who visits Westport House spends €193 per day in the local area, according to a recent economic survey. Losing it is beyond comprehension."

Fears were expressed that the house would fall into the hands of overseas owners or "vulture funds" who would close the gates for good.

In 2006, Lord Altamont, who died in July of last year, took out a loan for €6.5m to cover renovations. "The idea of the loan was to secure the estate for the next 50 years," said his daughter, Sheelyn Browne.

The Nama loans relate to the 380 acres surrounding the house but not to the building itself - however, in reality, one asset could not be liquidated without the other.

Tourism Minister Michael Ring confirmed that negotiations are ongoing between Mayo County Council and Nama in a bid to resolve the issue.

For any such agreement to prevail, section 4.1.1 of the Nama Act, which lets the State purchase loans directly "for legitimate reasons in the public interest" would need to be invoked.

"I will do everything I can to make sure the estate is not sold on to private owners," Mr Ring said earlier in the day.

"This just can't be allowed happen. Last week I facilitated a meeting between county council officials and Nama. I'm confident there will be a positive outcome to these negotiations."

The Irish Independent understands that one possible solution to the problem would be for the County Council to acquire the loan at a substantially reduced rate, though finding the sums needed would still be a mammoth challenge.

Mayo Council Chief Executive Peter Hynes confirmed yesterday that talks were ongoing with Nama.

Meanwhile, Ian Lumley, An Taisce's Heritage Officer, wrote to Nama Chief Executive Brendan McDonagh urging him to remove Westport House from the Project Arrow Portfolio.

But Sheelyn Browne, who manages the estate with her sister Karen, believes selling to private owners may well be the best option.

Irish Independent

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