Earth Centre closes as visitor numbers drop and debts rise

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The Millennium Commission conceded yesterday that the first British visitor attraction built to celebrate the environment had been built "ahead of its time" as the venue closed its gates amid mounting losses and dismal visitor numbers.

The Millennium Commission conceded yesterday that the first British visitor attraction built to celebrate the environment had been built "ahead of its time" as the venue closed its gates amid mounting losses and dismal visitor numbers.

The £43m lottery-funded Earth Centre opened on colliery spoilheaps near Doncaster, Yorkshire, in 1999, with the high ideal that the public would be interested in the concept of sustainable development.

But after five years of struggle for economic viability, during which Germans and Dutch markets have often seemed more promising than British, its trustees have closed the centre, laid off 51 of its 75 staff and handed management to Doncaster Council, which is now pondering the site's future.

"The reality is [sustainable development] is not yet occupying the minds of the majority of the population," Mike O'Connor, the Millennium Commission's chief executive, said yesterday. "Only now are issues such as global warming making people wake up a bit."

In the mid-1990s, when the concept was being planned as the Commission's first important project, it was reckoned that tourists would pay £8.95 (£4.95 if they left the car at home) to view what was called a "green theme park". The venue was nicknamed the "Northern Dome", and the then Environment minister, Michael Meacher, said it would rival the Millennium Dome.

His words became painfully prophetic. Though the centre boosted trade for north-east ferry operators because the Germans and Dutch loved it, a fifth of the anticipated 500,000 people turned up in the first year to view recycling, sustainability and ecology exhibitions. It closed for 18 months as managers planned to boost profits through the corporate sector.

A new chief executive was appointed, populist attractions were introduced (including a road train, Amazon adventure indoor play area, adventure golf and a children's play galleon) and there were grounds for optimism. Visitor numbers rose 42 per cent in the first four months of last year, from 10,000 to 37,000. The centre appeared to be on course to hit 150,000 visitors and the £2m turnover required to ensure its viability.

But after this year's wet summer prompted a new downturn in visitor figures, the trustees have decided that they could not go on. Doncaster councillors' plans for the place remain uncertain, though it is understood they will stop charging an entrance fee and use it as a recycling centre.

The town's elected mayor, Martin Winter, said the council would be committed to the centre's environmental principles but pledged that taxpayers would not be asked to underwrite running costs.

Mr O'Connor said: "If you are going to make people learn about environmental issues, you have to do it in a way that explains it to them."The benchmark for success has been the Eden Project in Cornwall, where a derelict china clay pit was transformed into the world's largest greenhouse with £42m of millennium funding. Mr O'Connor said Eden had succeeded because it had plants to show off.

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