The transfer of the National 1798 Centre in Enniscorthy for sale to its new owner was approved after a lengthy debate.
News of the intended sale of the National 1798 Centre at Arnold's Cross was announced at the Enniscorthy Municipal District Council recently. Under the proposal the landmark building will be sold to Mr John Stafford of Slaney Farms, Tomnalosset, at a price of €325,000. Mr Stafford intends to use the building as a micro distillery which will produce artisan gin and vodka and which Wexford County Council hopes will continue to attract tourists. It will also create employment for four people initially.
At last week's Wexford County Council meeting Cllr Johnny Mythen referenced an article in the Enniscorthy Guardian in which the owner of the Castle nightclub - which forms part of plans for a tourist hub in the town centre where the 1798 Centre was to be located - said he would not be selling the property. Cllr Keith Doyle said he would prefer to see the 1798 Centre site being used. 'I have a great affinity to that site. I have watched the discussions about the site and we are also talking about another project in Enniscorthy so I would be voting for this because I don't want to stop another project which would be of benefit to the community and the whole ethos of tourism.'
Cllr Doyle said he would like to see a more concrete proposal about what the council plans for the tourism hub in the town centre. 'I know we are going to move the 1798 Centre over the next couple of years. On a temporary basis I would like to know where it's going to go. This is going to take place after it goes through planning so we do have to get our act together, even for a temporary site.'
Cllr Davy Hynes said: 'It's an iconic site, the only 1798 site in the county,' before being corrected by Cllr Pip Breen who pointed out that Boolavogue also has a national 1798 centre.
Cllr Mythen said it would be preferable to wait until the council had a permanent site for the centre to reopen.
Dirctor of Services for Economic Development Tony Larkin said: 'Postponing the sale until we have a permanent home isn't viable. This is a commercial development which is in planning permission. It will not be able to proceed (until the transfer is completed). A distillery and visitor centre is planned.'
Director of Services for the Arts John Carley said he could pull a finalised plan together for Enniscorthy in time for the May meeting of the local authority.
'I think a decision to postpone is a decision to kill the venture. The businessman involved is under pressure to get this over the line. He has had some delays already.'
Cllr Mythen said: 'I appreciate the dilemma this is causing but I think we should come up with a plan now. There is a huge display and it would require a massive building.'
Cllr Paddy Kavanagh said: 'I think this has gone on long enough. The person who has put this together as a business venture is being delayed. I don't think it is prudent to delay this any further. It will be a tourist attraction. In six months time we could be here again and we could have a building that is neglected. It's already mooted that the 1798 Centre will be accommodated in a tourism hub in the town centre. I think it needs to have a permanent home where we can enhance it and add to it to improve what is there. It's well-known that it is dated; school visitor numbers have dropped off over recent years. Rather than flog it to death we need to have a new approach.'
Cllr Doyle said consultants are being appointed, adding that he hopes they come back with 'something substantial' for Enniscorthy, adding that site closer to the town centre is perferable.
'We need to move this forward,' he said.
Cllr Kathleen Codd Nolan said Enniscorthy councillors agreed to ring fence the money raised from the centre's sale for the town, while Cllr Codd Nolan said a proper budget is needed once a suitable site is located.
CEO Tom Enright said discussions have been held with consultants and Fáilte Ireland about tourism in Enniscorthy and a funding submission is due to be made in December. He said a consultant will be appointed this month, adding that it will take between six and nine months for the consultancy work to be completed for a permanent solution to the 1798 centre. 'That will involve a new building. It will realistically take between two-and-a-half and three years between planning and funding. It's important to drive this on.'
Mr Enright said he was reluctant to find temporary accommodation for the centre, adding that there was no suitable building in the council's ownership in the town presently.
'I'm reluctant to open it on a temporary basis as I feel it would devalue it and make it unattractive and reduce its impact. We will put items into storage and reimagine the centre which offers a very good experience but it's for 20 years ago. It's a bit dated in terms of modern tourist expectations.'
Mr Enright said the council is advancing a number of projects for Enniscorthy town centre. 'We need people to come in off of the motorway into the town and any town that has a distillery and a tourist centre will attract visitors.'
He said the main tourism offering needs to be located in the town centre. 'If we want a commercial solution to this we need to move reasonably quickly. We are looking at our own properties in Enniscorthy. We open the district office, the old courthouse and the Athenaeum will need a permanent home. There's the Bank of Ireland building, Murphy Floods and the Dunnes property is for sale. There are a number of things happening on the property front. Our library is inadequate in terms of a modern library facilities so there are a number of challenges that we have.'
He said Enniscorthy councillor will be updated on the plans shortly.
When pressed on the need to have some of the 1798 Centre exhibits housed during this anniversary year, Mr Enright said some space could be found in Enniscorthy Castle.
Cllr Willie Fitzharris said: 'The 1798 Centre site hasn't worked. New Ross was very much involved in 1798 and contributed greatly to the building of it. Noone wants to see our 1798 history being lost. The site didn't work and we are just postponing the inevitable. There is no point in leaving an empty building there and being in danger of losing the sale.'
Cllr Kavanagh agreed, saying it would send out the wrong message to potential investors in the town.
Cllr Osiin O'Connell said: 'I appreciate it's of special experience to Enniscorthy but it's a national centre and there was a great amount of support from the diaspora and input from the state and county.'
Cllr Oliver Walsh said the bypass is opening next year. 'We need to do everything we can to ensure we encourage all projects in the town. I think we should have faith in both the CEO and the director that they will find a permanent home for the centre which is of huge importance to Enniscorthy.'
He said its new location in the town centre will bring more footfall.
Chairman Cllr John Hegarty said a month's delay won't impact the site's sale. Councillors voted by majority in favour of the transfer.