Dome Nouveau: longer hours but fewer visitors

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The Independent Online

The Government was warned yesterday not to inject more lottery money into the Millennium Dome after organisers admitted that they had failed to increase their attendance figures with longer opening hours.

As the National Lottery Charities Board was forced to justify its record against criticism by the Government's spending watchdog, the New Millennium Experience Company was left defending falling ticket sales. Figures released yesterday revealed ticket sales in the week to 2 April were down 3 per cent from the previous seven days, despite an extension of the Dome's opening hours to 11pm last weekend.

Admitting that the figures were "a bit disappointing", the New Millennium Experience Company said it was still confident it would reach its target of 10 million visitors this year.

"We don't think that news of the late opening has really reached the public," a spokesman said. "We're expecting to do well in April and May and to really pick up when the summer holidays begin."

However, Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative Culture spokesman, insisted that ministers, who have already spent £509m on the attraction in Greenwich, south-east London, including a £60m loan, should not spend more public money keeping the Dome afloat. Mr Ainsworth said: "It is disheartening that, given the extended opening hours, the tickets sales have still not reached the level needed. Every week that it goes on attracting fewer people than it needs, the cliff which must be climbed to break even gets higher. This increases the prospect that they will be back for more lottery money and I don't think anyone will welcome that."

The shortlist of five bids for the future use of the Millennium Dome is due to be announced today, with rivals promising to invest up to a billion pounds in the site.

The top bid is expected to come from Meridian City, a Malaysian-backed consortium, to turn the Dome into an international conference centre.

Meridian City, whose members include the Malaysian property developers Country Heights Holdings and Sunrise, want to turn the Dome into a "work-live-play" conference and events centre. The scheme is modelled on San Francisco's old warehouse district, an office space that can be turned into an entertainment centre attracting high-tech companies.

Ministers believe that the proposals backed by BSkyB to turn the Dome into a sports arena next year are more exciting. A more modest plan, by Nomura's finance group, includes turning the Dome into a permanent exhibition.

Other bidders include Tussauds and McAlpine who want to create Greenwich Media World at the Dome, and Legacy, which envisages the Dome as "London's Silicon Valley".

Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, has removed himself from the judging because he knows one of the bidders.

English Partnerships, the government's land regeneration agency, has drawn up the shortlist of bids which are to take over up to 120 acres of the reclaimed land at Greenwich Peninsula, including the 40-acre Dome site.

It is expecting to raise up to £150m for the site.

English Partnerships will make a final decision as to who will win the site this summer.