The Chair invited Mr Pat McGuigan and Mr Roger Smyth, representatives of Strabane History Society to address the Committee.
Mr McGuigan thanked the Members for accepting their request to present today. He paid specific appreciation to the elected Members who represented the Sperrin Ward for their assistance so far. He also took the opportunity to thank the other representatives of Strabane History Society and interested parties responsible for the publication of the proposal to transform Milltown House and Lodge and part of the site into a Heritage or Visitors Centre so to promote the history of the Strabane area.
Mr McGuigan referred to the proposal document circulated to Members at the meeting. He explained that the main reason for their attendance was to request guidance from Council on how to achieve the proposal in a viable and successful way and to request assistance in the project.
Mr McGuigan referred to the history of Strabane area and said that Strabane was a very old town and had a lot of history to be proud of and the proposal would provide an opportunity to inform the younger generation of the history within Strabane for them to be proud of.
Mr Smyth reflected on the various literary giants from Strabane and included the famous hymn writer Ms Cecil Frances Alexander and other famous sons and daughters of Strabane; Brian O’Nolan, George Sigerson, John Dunlap, Herdman Family, Annie Dill Maunder, President Woodrow Wilson, Guy Carlton, Ezekiel J Donnell, Oliver Pollock, Joe Sheridan. He said that audio visuals would be used to show graphics and examples of the people’s lives and achievements at the proposed Milltown facility.
The Chair thanked the presenters for an interesting presentation. He invited Members to comment or seek points of clarification if they so wished.
Councillor Boyle thanked the representatives for the presentation. She said that it was an ambitious proposal and one that she would certainly be supportive of. She declared an interest as a direct descendent of Dr Sigerson. She referred to the proposal document and commented that it was impressive. She referred to the Minister of Education who had stated that the Milltown site be retained for educational purpose, so the proposal was timely in that regard. She added however, that it was an extensive site and queried if alternative potential funders had been approached by the Strabane History Society.
Mr McGuigan clarified for Councillor M Boyle that the Strabane History Society felt that it was important to seek Council support first before they would embark on seeking alternative funding. He emphasised that the priority was to save Milltown House first and then proceed with the development of the site.
Councillor M Boyle stated that she was aware of cross-community support within Strabane to preserve the iconic building. She assured the representatives that she would work collectively with other party colleagues in order to achieve this. She added that as alluded to earlier she was aware of other bodies/agencies viewing the site and it was therefore important that Council offered whatever support possible to the Strabane History Society to progress their endeavours.
Councillor R Barr welcomed the presentation. He referred to a previous meeting of Council (30 January 2020) when he had submitted a motion for Council to contact the Education Authority (NI) to investigate the possibility of acquiring the vacant site with a view to developing the site to provide a Visitor’s Centre, park and nature trail. He advised that following discussion an amendment to the motion was agreed with a view to develop the site to address local social need priorities including sport, play and recreational facilities and potential social housing and he had agreed to support the amendment.
He stated that the Education Authority formally responded and stated that they would consider the future of the site once it was formally vacated by Strabane Grammar School. He agreed that Strabane had a colourful history and there were other legendary characters not mentioned by the Strabane History Society representatives that should be included in the proposal. He added that the proposal offered a golden opportunity for cross-border projects and attract visitors to the town and wider District Council area. He referred to the town having suffered due to political indifferences and this provided an opportunity to promote the town’s cultured past.
Councillor J Barr thanked the presenters for playing their part in keeping the history of Strabane alive for many years. He said that he was saddened to learn that the school had been vandalised during the first week of closure and it was therefore essential that a future use be identified. He welcomed the motion as referred to by Councillor R Barr which had been agreed by Council previously and also the proposal presented today for a Heritage Centre.
Councillor R Barr proposed, seconded by Councillor J Barr that Council Officials engage on behalf of the Strabane History Society with Tourism (NI) and the Education Authority to seek funding towards the project.
Councillor Cooper welcomed the presenters to the meeting and thanked them for their presentation. He agreed with previous speakers that the proposal was exciting and provided an opportunity for a wider tourism association with the City and the Sperrins. He referred to Councillor R Barr’s proposal and advised that in terms of Tourism NI there was not a massive pot of funding available. He advised that whilst he agreed with the initial action to approach Council, it was necessary to widen the funding options and to engage with other funding providers in going forward.
Councillor Cusack concurred with the previous speaker’s comments. She urged caution for the Strabane History Society not to restrict their funding options to Tourism NI and the Education Authority and to pursue other potential funding bodies.
Councillor R Barr expressed his contentment to amend his previous proposal and for Officials to engage with other relevant funding bodies.
Alderman Warke on behalf of his party expressed the view that they were content to support the proposal.
The Chair advised that he preferred for Council Officials to firstly engage with the Strabane History Society in order to outline potential next steps in the funding process and to draw up a business case prior to investigating alternative funding opportunities. He sought the views of Members on the way forward.
Discussion ensued after which it was agreed for Council officials to engage with the Strabane History Society and for an update report to be presented to Committee at a future meeting.
Recommended that i) Council Officials engage with the Strabane History Society in order to consider the proposal regarding the transformation of Milltown House and Lodge into a Heritage or Visitors Centre; ii) and for an update on progress be provided at a future Business and Culture Committee Meeting.
The presenters left the meeting at this stage.