How high ideals bit the dust at Earth Centre

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The Independent Online

Britain's landscape of new millennium "experiences" began its formation on the spoilheaps of south Yorkshire 16 months ago. The first sobering lesson in making venues pay is emerging from the same place. The £43m Earth Centre, the Millennium Commission's first important project, was built on devastated colliery wastelands near Doncaster, with the high ideal that the British would explore the concept of sustainable redevelopment.

Britain's landscape of new millennium "experiences" began its formation on the spoilheaps of south Yorkshire 16 months ago. The first sobering lesson in making venues pay is emerging from the same place. The £43m Earth Centre, the Millennium Commission's first important project, was built on devastated colliery wastelands near Doncaster, with the high ideal that the British would explore the concept of sustainable redevelopment.

Tourists, it was figured, would pay £8.95 (£4.95 if they left the car at home) to view what was dubbed a "green theme park". The venue was nicknamed the "Northern Dome", and the Environment minister Michael Meacher said it would rival the Millennium Dome.

His words have been painfully prophetic. Though the centre boosted trade for north-east ferry operators because the Germans loved it, within two months its visitor numbers were half what was expected, and, since ticket sales covered running costs, 30 of its 140 staff were made redundant.

Jonathan Smales, the chief executive, later admitted there had been "some naivety" in the process of bidding for lottery money, which encouraged many prospective venues to over-estimate visitor numbers.

Eight months ago, the Earth Centre closed for the £15m second phase of the centre to be built, and it will be a long way removed from its theme park days when it reopens next year.

Mr Smales, a former Greenpeace campaigner, has turned to private-sector partners to tap into a niche education market which, it is expected, will provide the revenue that the 22 million potential visitors who live within two hours of the Earth Centre never did.

The "reinvented, repositioned" centre will be "moreserious" and "not in your face", Mr Smales said. It will place emphasis on education programmes, linked to thenational curriculum, and conferencing and events for companies that want to explore environmental sustainability. Visitors will be fewer, but companies will pay "thousands a day instead of £4.95 at the gate".

The centre, which claims it was never meant to be a mass-market attraction, though it was presented nationally as one, struggled because it failed to provide a cogent explanation of what an Earth Centre wassupposed to be - an unfortunate shortcoming in one of Britain's poorest regions. "People [here] are looking for more fun when they have time off," Mr Smales admitted. "We were not fun in the conventional, escapist way. That explains why we had an extraordinary percentage of visitors from outside the region."

The new Earth Centre will offer "no pretence that we have come up with some showstopping, greatest-show-on-earth venue," he said. "Instead we will provide educational programmes based on environmental sustainability."

Not quite the grand ideal on which the place was launched, but, as South Yorkshire has learnt from painful experience, even environmental sustainability must break even.

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