A major transfer deal involving Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and Larne FC moved a step closer this week with club bosses netting the opportunity to enter formal contract talks to purchase Inver Park.
The football ground was listed on the open market in February with potential investors invited to bid on it.
With the closing date having passed, councillors agreed on Monday to proceed with the sale process and enter into formal negotiations with Larne Football Club (NI) Charity, headed up by the Championship outfit’s owner Kenny Bruce.
Councillor Mark McKinty, who last night proposed to proceed with the sale talks, said the transfer of ownership of Inver Park was set to be a “fantastic result for Larne FC and Mid and East Antrim”.
He added: “I am delighted with this development, which is good news for the football club, its fans, the people of Larne and all the citizens of Mid and East Antrim.
“At last night’s council meeting, and after confirmation that grounds are protected for recreational use, I was pleased to propose that Inver Park be sold for stadium development - with the added amendment that some of the proceeds go towards some work at the war memorial, given the historic links with the Royal British Legion.”
Welcoming the move too, Alderman Gregg McKeen said: “This is a huge step forward in terms of the sale of Inver Park and a great result for Larne FC and Mid and East Antrim.
“The successful bidder has set out exciting and ambitious plans for the venue, which I have no doubt will ensure a fantastic future for Larne FC and the local community.
“The plans for Inver Park are to create a hub of sporting activity to be used and enjoyed by the people of Larne.
“By passing over ownership of the venue, council will also receive a significant financial investment, which can in turn be used to support other vital frontline services, projects and initiatives locally.
“Larne FC has been part of the fabric of our town for generations. It is vital the club’s future is safeguarded, and I welcome the assurances from Mr Bruce and his team and look forward to what promises to be a fantastic journey ahead for the club and the people of Larne.”
Mr Bruce said: “We are delighted that our charity’s offer to purchase Inver Park has been accepted by the Mid and East Antrim local authority.
“We have been very impressed by the support we have received from the local authority for our project to create first class sports facilities at Inver Park for the Larne people.
“We have a charity set up to purchase Inver Park and the trustees will hold that asset for the Larne people so that it remains a centre for sporting excellence for hundreds of years to come.
“We hope to conclude the transaction as soon as possible so we can complete the works on a new 4G playing surface and floodlights for the start of 2018-2019 season.”
Mr Bruce went on to thank council for the faith it has shown in the project.
Anne Donaghy, council chief executive, said: “We have been working extremely closely with Mr Bruce and his team and I have been hugely impressed by his vision, passion and ambition for Larne Football Club.
“The large numbers of fans turning out to cheer on the side and the buzz created around the area in recent months is nothing short of incredible and a credit to Mr Bruce and his colleagues.
“The successful bid by Larne Football Club (NI) Charity is to be welcomed and we look forward to now entering into formal talks regarding the sale of Inver Park.”
Any deal will be subject to all the terms within the conditions of sale being adhered to and legal contracts being finalised. The purchase of Inver Park is also subject to a covenant prohibiting the use of the land and structures for anything other than sports or recreational purposes.
In February, council said the asking price for the site was “commercially sensitive” and submissions from bidders would be “evaluated on price and on the proposals they have for Inver Park”.
Mr Bruce made his interest in Larne FC known last summer when he took over the club and in October he outlined plans to invest in both Inver Park and the team at an engagement session with supporters.
The proposed investment, understood to be a six-figure sum, was a considerable turnaround in fortunes for the club which during the summer had to temporarily close its ground due to “safety concerns”.