At a meeting of the council’s Community Planning Committee last week, Antrim Ulster Unionist Councillor Jim Montgomery was commenting on the local authority’s plan to hold the annual Power NI Enchanted Garden event at Antrim Castle Gardens in the run-up to Christmas.
A budget of £46,000 which includes additional sponsorship has been earmarked to hold the festive event in December. There has also been a “significant investment in new lighting”.
Last year, 84,036 visitors attended the event, an increase of 23,304 from 60,732 visitors in 2018. More than 64,000 visitors came from outside Antrim and Newtownabbey.
Cllr Montgomery said: “With the situation we are facing, I think for this year, next year and possibly the year after that, we will be facing severe restrictions on what we will be able to spend on events.”
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The borough council says that unless measures are put in place soon to “mitigate the deficit situation and to make up for the potential loss in rate income in 2020/21”, it is anticipated that there will be a “substantial rate increase” next year.
The estimated cash deficit for Antrim and Newtownabbey at the end of April 2020 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to be in the region of £1.1m.
Eighty per cent of the council’s income comes from rates and earned income from facilities such as leisure centres accounts for 18 per cent.
Cllr Montgomery was commenting on an approach to the council by an Enchanted Garden contractor who is apparently interested in the sole running of the event.
The councillor suggested it was a “good option to consider” for an event which has been “successful year after year”.
“Something is better than nothing taking place,” he added. “Hopefully after consideration, all parties will support the idea.”
DUP Councillor Stephen Ross said that council needs to take a “serious look” at the proposal, noting that the Power NI Enchanted Garden event would be required to take place over a longer period of time due to the likelihood of social distancing.
Alliance Councillor Billy Webb stated: “This is a departure from contract in relation to this event. If it is coming back for consideration, I would ask if it needs to go out to tender. There may be others out there who may be interested in putting on an event.”
SDLP Councillor Ryan Wilson said the local authority needs to “weigh up the risks to the council’s reputation”.
“We have been delivering one of the best winter gardens in the country and each year, it has been improving.”
He urged the council to “take its time and give a lot of thought to this proposal”.
Antrim DUP Councillor Dunlop asked if there was apathy over large gathering events at this time.
“There are serious decision to be made. The proposal is that it goes back to each group for discussions and comes back in July.”
Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter
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