FEARS have been raised for the long-term future of Bute's award-winning tourist information centre as a ten-year commitment from Argyll and Bute Council to help pay for its running costs comes to an end.
The council has given VisitScotland 20,000 a year towards the upkeep of the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre – housed in Rothesay's historic Winter Garden – since the visitor facility was completed in 2001.
But the agreement to make that annual payment comes to an end this year – and with Argyll and Bute facing an unprecedented squeeze on its budget, worries have been expressed that a decision to end the authority's financial support could threaten the future of the centre.
Tim Saul, the chairman of Isle of Bute Marketing and Tourism Ltd, told The Buteman: "It has come to our notice that the council's funding stream for the Discovery Centre runs out in 2010, and all of us are concerned as to what the future of the centre is to be.
"It would be enormously helpful to know what VisitScotland's plans are, because the centre is an immensely important resource for tourists and local businesses, and were it to be downscaled, its opening hours reduced or even, heaven forfend, it should close, it would be a huge loss to our economy.
"The centre's staff do a first class job and add tremendous value to any visitor's time on Bute – and since VisitScotland receives a substantial amount of public funding, it would be totally unacceptable to see this facility lost to the island.
"A number of local authorities have already withdrawn or reduced the funding they give to VisitScotland because they felt they could do the job just as well themselves."
A spokeswoman for Argyll and Bute Council confirmed the current year was the last for the index-linked payment, and said the future of the agreement was "something the council will need to consider as part of the coming budget round".
The Winter Garden was opened in 1924 as a venue for plays, concerts and other forms of entertainment for the thousands of holidaymakers who flocked to Bute during Rothesay's tourist heyday.
But it fell into disuse as the town's popularity declined during the 1960s in the face of cheap package holidays abroad.
Attempts to find alternative uses for the building all hit stumbling blocks – as did a proposal to demolish it entirely - until Argyll, the Isles, Loch Lomond, Stirling and Trossachs Tourist Board, along with Argyll and the Islands Enterprise and the Winter Garden Trust hit upon the idea of converting the facility to a tourist information centre, cinema and restaurant at a cost of more than 500,000.
The centre won a prestigious VisitScotland Thistle Award in 2002 in the 'best tourism initiative' category.
David Adams McGilp, regional director for VisitScotland, said: "Tourism is vital to the economy of Rothesay and the Isle of Bute.
"The VisitScotland information centre at the Isle of Bute Discovery Centre is extremely important in ensuring visitors make the most of their time in the area and are inspired to return in the future.
"Negotiations are ongoing with Argyll and Bute Council regarding future support for the VisitScotland information centre. We will make a further announcement once these discussions are finalised."
Island councillor Len Scoullar, a former chair of the Winter Garden Trust, said he had approached Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and was told that organisation, while happy to be involved in talks over the centre's future, could not directly fund the facility.
"We all recognise the value of tourism to Rothesay and the Isle of Bute," he said, "and no one more than myself who when chair of the Rothesay Winter Garden Trust secured the funding, from AIE and the council to allow the then tourist board, under James Fraser, to take over the Winter Garden and provide what has turned out to be an invaluable asset to Bute.
"Enquiries by me reveal that discussions between VisitScotland and the council are ongoing, and I will certainly be talking to council officers and colleagues now and during the forthcoming budget deliberations to stress how important the visitor centre is to us."
Local MSP and tourism minister Jim Mather said: "I am sure that any discussion will underline the importance of the Discovery Centre.
"I hope that in the process that absolutely everyone is involved that could and should help: including all those who already benefit from the role and presence of the centre and its staff.
"In that climate there is a far better chance to see where the Discovery Centre delivers value and also to uncover new, additional ways to boost its revenues and the local economy."
Bute councillor Isobel Strong, also a former chair of the Winter Garden Trust, told The Buteman: "I and the rest of the Bute councillors will be doing our utmost to ensure the council's funding support continues, because no-one needs reminding of the Discovery Centre's importance to the island."
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