Works underway on £18.5m Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre

THE National Trust has announced that work has now commenced on building the exciting new heneghan.peng designed visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway, World Heritage Site.

The building contractor appointed to lead the project is Gilbert-Ash, one of Northern Ireland's leading and most innovative construction firms. Gilbert-Ash beat off tough competition from across the European Union to win the contract. The Gilbert-Ash led team is supported by many of Northern Ireland's top companies in the construction sector. These include McConnell Stone from Kilkeel, Metaltech, Lisburn, Mastercraft, Dungiven, Vaughan's from Newtownabbey and Hynd's Architectural Systems from Belfast.k

Visiting the site, Tourism Minister Arlene Foster said: "I am thrilled that we have reached this landmark stage in building a new visitor centre at the Giant's Causeway fit for the 21st century. Our aim is to grow visitors to Northern Ireland to 4.5 million by 2020, and generate 1 billion for the local economy. This new visitor facility will be important in achieving those targets, encouraging visitors to stay longer in the area and to spend more on local products and services, including food and drink, accommodation, art, craft and souvenirs.

"This facility will provide an impressive state-of-the art building that will attract local and overseas visitors. I congratulate everyone on reaching this stage and encourage all those involved to stay on target towards summer 2012, which promises to be a very exciting year for tourism in Northern Ireland."

Commenting at the start of the works, the National Trust's Director for Northern Ireland, Hilary McGrady, said: "It is fantastic to be on site, surrounded by diggers, lorries and so many people working on what clearly marks another real milestone in the story of the Giant's Causeway. In these difficult economic times it is fantastic to see the progress already on this major multi-million pound project which will have significant benefits for the construction industry and the local community. It's wonderful to be involved with some of the best companies Northern Ireland has to offer.

"We are where we are today thanks to the hard work of the literally hundreds of people who have been involved in and touched by this project. It is a testimony to the generous funding provided by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Heritage Lottery Fund, and the commitment of our partners in Moyle District Council. I am thrilled that in less than 2 years since the National Trust secured planning permission, we are now digging and scoping the new building, and taking the huge step of turning the award winning heneghan.peng design into reality. We are really excited by the prospect of having these new facilities open by summer 2012."

Raymond Gilroy, Projects Director at Gilbert-Ash commented: "It gives me great pleasure to see the construction phase underway on the New Giant's Causeway Visitors' Centre following an extremely challenging and intense tendering and pre-construction phase. Gilbert-Ash is delighted to have been appointed as the principal contractor on this unique project. It is especially pleasing that we as a local firm will have the opportunity to deliver what will undoubtedly be a world class facility at Northern Ireland's most renowned location. We will be using the best local product and the best local suppliers. An excellent collaborative working ethos and team spirit has been developed during the pre-construction phase with our client the National Trust, the design team, key supply chain, government agencies and Gilbert-Ash. We have no doubt that this will continue. "

During the build period the Causeway will remain open but there will be some inevitable disruption at the site.

Esther Dobbin, the Trust's Project Operations Manager for the Giant's Causeway commented: "The Causeway will remain open for business but it won't be business as usual. There will be less parking at the site and we will need the support of visitors, tour operators and local businesses to work with us in these challenging times of project build. We have introduced a park and ride service between Bushmills and the Causeway which is now in operation. The service is well sign-posted and we would urge everyone coming to the Causeway to use this. During the build there will be temporary retail facilities and tourist information in the Causeway Hotel; the pedestrian route to the stones will pass round the hotel. The Causeway Hotel also remains open for business."

Mr Robin Swann and Cllr Bill Kennedy, the two North Antrim Ulster Unionist Assembly candidates, along with sitting MLA Rev Dr Robert Coulter, welcomed the scheme as "absolutely fantastic".

In a statement, the UUP trio said such was the popularity of the Giant's Causeway, that it had already established itself as the "unofficial Eighth Wonder of the World".

Mr Swann, who is also North Antrim UUP Chairman, said: "It is absolutely tremendous that work has begun on the new visitors' centre at the Giant's Causeway World Heritage Site. The project is expected to cost around 18.5 million, and this is a reflection of the sheer importance of this essential project.

"The natural beauty of the Causeway will be protected as the design by Dublin architects Heneghan Peng emphasises that the visitors' centre will be hidden from the coastal landscape by a grass roof.

"I am also very pleased the Causeway will remain open while it's being built, but although there'll be some disruption at the site, we hope this can be kept to a minimum. We look forward with great enthusiasm to it hopefully being finished by summer next year.

"It would be a fitting touch if a senior member of the Royal Family would do the honours of officially declaring the new centre open," said Mr Swann.

Mr Kennedy, the Mayor of Ballymoney, continued: "As about 750,000 people visit it every year, this will mean a superb boost for the entire North Antrim economy rather than just simply being limited to the local Bushmills region."

North Antrim Sinn Fin MLA Daith McKay also welcomed the commencement of work.

Mr McKay stated: "It is fantastic to see this development finally get the go ahead. When I was elected to the Assembly four years ago there was a degree of uncertainty over whether or not this would be the case given the promotion of another private sector application and everyone is well aware of the controversy which followed concerning the DUP. The fact that the then Environment Minister Arlene Foster was forced to reconsider her stance of being 'minded' to approve the private sector application was a key turning point.

"This 18.5million project is to be completed by the summer of next year and is already providing much needed work to local people in the construction sector."

Cllr McShane added: "There is already a park and ride facility operating from Bushmills to the Visitors' Centre and this will not only reduce congestion at the Causeway but will also bring huge economic benefits to Bushmills. The Causeway itself remains open for business and this new Centre which will be hidden from the landscape with a grass roof will be a great complement to this natural wonder of the north coast. All those involved in getting this project to this point should be commended."