Museum at Fort George would reduce city’s cycle of emigration

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Steve Bradley says riverfront site offers so much potential for development

In 2001, Britain’s Ministry of Defence handed Fort George and Ebrington Barracks over to Stormont to be used for the benefit of the people of Derry.

Eighteen years on and, despite a number of ambitious masterplans promising jobs and prosperity, little has transpired at either location.

The 26-acre Ebrington site has witnessed the most progress so far - providing a home to dozens of small businesses and being open to the public for key events and everyday usage. Yet, after almost two decades, only five of its 21 buildings have been filled, which, by any measure, represents under-delivery and squandered potential.

Fort George ranks as an even greater disappointment, having sat largely fenced off and vacant for the last 20 years. The Northern Ireland Science Park, located at its Bay Road end, is a positive, as is the small ‘Hibernia Exchange’ data cable building at the other. In-between, however, sits 15 acres of vast nothingness - a daily visual reminder of how its mission to benefit the people of Derry has yet to be fulfilled.

It is hard to think of any undeveloped site within our city which offers greater potential than Fort George. It occupies a large, flat piece of land in a city renowned for its hills. To the immediate west of the site is the meeting point of Derry’s three busiest thoroughfares (Strand Rd, Buncrana Rd and Culmore Rd), whilst, to its east, sits a magnificent riverside setting. In any other city, Fort George would be considered a prime piece of real estate and treated accordingly. Yet, despite two different sets of planning permission for major redevelopments there in recent years, it remains a vacant lot.

In September last year, Stormont commenced its third and latest attempt to find a meaningful use for the landmark site with the Department for Communities offering it for sale on the open market. Then, in February, it revealed that it had entered into an exclusive agreement with the Western Health and Social Care Trust and its proposal for a Cityside Health and Care Centre on the site.

It is a cornerstone of regeneration and property theory that land generally gravitates towards the usage that will create the highest economic value (known as ‘Highest and Best Use’). Riverside land should, therefore, be utilised for a purpose which either necessitates water frontage or for which such a location would command an additional premium. Neither of those holds true for a health centre which could reasonably be located on any other site with decent access within Derry’s west bank.

Local businessman Garvan O’Doherty has revealed publicly that he was behind one of the other expressions of interest. He had proposed an £80m development of the site - the centrepiece of which would be a major and iconic facility to tell Derry’s history as a hub for emigration to the New World. For two centuries, Derry served as the key departure point through which anyone living north of a line between Dublin and Galway left for North America. Our city was, therefore, the last piece of Irish soil upon which the ancestors of 45 million U.S. and Canadian citizens ever set foot. That is a unique and powerful historical fact which should make Derry hallowed ground to the Irish Diaspora. A place to which they are encouraged to make pilgrimage to discover the history and circumstances that compelled their forefathers to abandon their homeland for a future unknown. And to visit the last bit of Ireland that their ancestors ever set eyes and feet upon. It is an idea and an experience which no other city on this island could credibly seek to offer and which would provide major tourism, economic and reputational benefits to the entire north-west region. It would create an attraction of the scale and appeal needed to help us compete in a tough tourism market with box office attractions like Dublin, the Giants Causeway and Belfast’s Titanic. And, by its very nature, it would be the kind of facility that necessitated a riverfront location. Ireland’s complex and long-running emigration history deserves to be told in an authentic manner. And, given Derry’s central role within it, it is the appropriate place in which to bring that story to life.

A proposed emigration focus for Fort George is also rather poignant because, if we don’t realise the huge promise of key strategic sites within our city, we will condemn future generations here to depart in search of a better future for themselves. Right now there are thousands of recent school-leavers in Derry for whom, probably without realising it, the clock is ticking on the last few weeks they will ever spend based in the city of their birth. The inevitable outcome of the limited opportunities on offer here is that we continue to raise our young for export. Low-cost flights may have replaced the coffin ships which once transported folk from this area in centuries past - but go they still do and mostly never to make a home here again.

For this reason, it is essential that we take a stand as a city before it’s too late. Stormont must be challenged to explain the basis on which it believes that a health facility is the best use of Fort George’s unique riverfront site. They must be instructed to think again - ensuring, instead, that a higher value use is identified which can genuinely deliver for the people of the north-west. And they must be forced to commit that the proceeds of the eventual sale of Fort George will be ring-fenced for reinvestment solely within the city of Derry.

Otherwise, yet another opportunity to reduce our city’s endless cycle of emigration will be squandered.

Steve Bradley is a commentator and regeneration consultant. He can be followed on Twitter @Bradley_Steve