SDLP Leader and Foyle MLA Colum Eastwood has said that proposals for a Maritime and Emigration Museum at the Fort George site could drastically enhance the city’s tourist product.
Mr Eastwood has come out today backing proposals first mooted by local businessman Garvan O’Doherty.
The idea for a flagship tourist attraction at Fort George on a scale which it has been claimed could create a venture as successful as the Titanic Museum in Belfast comes despite long-standing plans to develop a Maritime Museum at the city’s other former base site at Ebrington.
Ebrington - which along with Fort George - was handed back by the military for the benefit of local people in the early 2000s.
The Council-led project at Ebrington has been delayed because of funding issues. Derry & Strabane Council said back in March that it is exploring all funding avenues as the deadlock at Stormont continues to impact on the release of money for such projects.
A spokesperson for the council confirmed at the time that less than half the money needed for the £11.25m project has been fully committed and while a further £6.5m had been committed “in principle,” that funding has not yet been released.
It is now over nine years since the completion of a feasibility study for the Ebrington project, which aims to celebrate and showcase Derry and Lough Foyle’s historic maritime importance over the centuries, including its role as vital naval base during and after the Second World War.
Mr O’Doherty has argued that Fort George is an ideal site for a large-scale iconic tourist attraction given its long and historic maritime association with the River Foyle and globally significant events.
However after receiving a variety of proposals for the site, the Department for Communities and the Western Health and Social Care Trust announced back in February this year that they had entered into an agreement to enable the Trust to further develop the proposal of locating a new cityside Health and Care Centre at Fort George.
Major plans for a medical hub and supermarket complex at the nearby Arntz site meanwhile were given the go ahead by Derry City & Strabane District Council’s Planning Committee earlier this year, with hundreds of jobs to be created.
Mr O’Doherty and his business partners have proposed a Flagship International Maritime and Emigration Centre at Fort George comprising an £80m iconic tourism project as part of a £150m to £200m mixed-use development scheme.
Speaking back in April he said: “We have seen in the last decade a transformation of our tourism product across the North of Ireland. Titanic Belfast has become a world leading tourism attraction with over 800,000 visitors a year, The Giants Causeway attracts a million visitors every year and the Wild Atlantic Way has provided 2,500kms of tourism opportunity for the west coast of Ireland.
“We believe now is the time for Derry to take its rightful place as an iconic destination, creating a 4th Signature Tourism Pillar. We want to attract visitors already making the trip to the North of Ireland to extend their journey to the North West, as well as enticing new markets.
“A rising tide can lift all boats and the opportunity is there for us now at Fort George to think big and to create a catalyst project that will transform our city forever.”
Mr Eastwood agreed that the proposal for a Maritime and Emigration Museum at the Fort George site “presents us with an unmissable opportunity not only to enhance the tourist product on offer in the North West but to tell some of the big stories about our past that we should all know about”.
He said: “Viking and Norman invasions, mass emigration during the famine, the strategic significance of Foyle as a landing post during the Second World War and the final surrender of the German U-Boat fleet. World history was forged on our shores, we should reconnect with it and tell our story with pride.
“I will be supporting this proposal as an excellent addition to the Fort George site and look forward advancing these plans.”