Dome to stay open after £77m bail-out approved

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The Independent Online

Calls for the immediate closure of the Millennium Dome were rejected last night after its main financial backer decided the costs of early closure were unacceptably high.

Calls for the immediate closure of the Millennium Dome were rejected last night after its main financial backer decided the costs of early closure were unacceptably high.

The Millennium Commission announced it would continue with plans to give the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC) further emergency grants now worth £77m to keep the Dome open until the end of the year.

The commissioners' decision, which is understood to have been made during a heated meeting in London yesterday, means NMEC will still receive the remaining £30m of a £43m lottery grant agreed in August and the £47m announced last week.

Their decision follows intense political pressure to keep the attraction open after the Japanese bank Nomura decided on Tuesday to abandon its plans for an £800m entertainments complex at the site.

The commissioners said closure would mean 1,800 immediate job losses, and "grave financial consequences" for NMEC's many contractors. It added in a statement that it had "taken careful account of the concerns expressed by the Government and others about the economic and legal costs of creditors and the moral obligations to staff that immediate closure of the Dome".

Meanwhile, English Partnerships, the Government's regeneration agency that owns the 300-acre Greenwich peninsula where the Dome is sited, said it had received "a number" of approaches from potential buyers.

Trevor Beattie, director of corporate strategy, said: "We expect to have other approach-es, and we will assess the position as quickly as we can and then report to ministers."

The agency is now reviewing its options after Nomura abandoned its £105m bid. They range from a fast-track process involving several bidders ready to make firm offers to restarting the competition from scratch.

English Partnerships has, however, in effect rejected demolishing the Dome when the Millennium Experience closes on 31 December because ministers have made clear they are "very keen" for it to remain in place.

Mr Beattie also denied there was any confusion over the position of Robert Bourne, the property developer behind the rival bid for the Dome by the Legacy group, who believes he is in "serious negotiations" to buy the attraction.

Although English Partnerships has yet to decide what action to take after Nomura withdrew, Mr Bourne had talks with Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the "minister for the Dome", within hours of Nomura's announcement. "The position is quite clear," said Mr Beattie. "We have been asked to look at all the options. We haven't decided anything."

Two of the other four bidders on the original shortlist of six candidates, which was unveiled in January, confirmed yesterday that they were interested in resubmitting their bids.

John Collard, of Sports Dome 2001, said its interest in building an advanced sports arena was "still very much alive", although it needed more information. Bill Frishmann, from Greenwich Media World, was keen partly because his organisation had invested "an enormous amount of effort and money" on its mixed-use leisure and business proposals.

The series of crises this month has also disturbed some Dome sponsors, who have collectively spent £160m.

Sponsors such as Boots, BSkyB and the City of London insisted yesterday they were happy with public reaction to the Dome and believed it would remain open. But many privately fear Nomura's decision to pull out and the controversies over NMEC's extra £47m emergency grant and falling visitor figures will further harm the Dome's public image, with knock-on effects for themselves.

The main sponsors held an emergency meeting last Friday to discuss the appointment of David James as NMEC's new executive chairman and his revelations about its finances. "I think you could describe the mood as one of mounting concern," said a source.