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HIE say Mareel is worth their support

The Mareel building site on Tuesday - Photos: Hans J Marter

HIGHLANDS and Islands Enterprise have put their weight behind the controversial Mareel cinema and music venue being built on Lerwick’s North Ness.

During a visit to Shetland this week, the development agency’s chiefs said they would be prepared to consider stepping in to help the venture financially if necessary.

HIE has invested almost £1 million in the £12.1 million project, which is currently running around 10 months behind schedule and in danger of going over budget.

HIE chief executive Alex Paterson, in Shetland with chairman Willy Roe and board member Steve Thomson, said they were keeping a close eye on the development, and were excited about its potential.

“I am not saying that we will give any more money to Mareel, but I will look at any request that might be made,” Mr Paterson said.

Despite the fierce criticism it has come under from some quarters within the community over the past few years, HIE believe Shetland will “embrace Mareel over time”.

Mr Roe said: “It is easy to criticise a building project that runs late. It was always going to be a difficult one, but bear in mind that this is an investment for the next half a century.

HIE visit (from left to right): chief executuve Alex Paterson, board member Steve Thomson, Shetland area manager Stuart Robertson and chairman Willie Roe.

“We are very confident that this big investment will be a catalyst for a lot of other things and will give Shetland a cutting edge. This is a distinctive project, there is nothing else like it in the highlands and islands area.

“I am confident that the obstacles can be overcome, and that Mareel will be a significant driver of a growth sector in the economy of Shetland.”

He added that creative industries formed one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and investment would boost community confidence, generate a stronger sense of identity and drive population growth.

Shetland Arts director Gwilym Gibbons said he was very pleased to hear such support coming from HIE, but that it was too early to say whether there would be any need to approach them for further assistance.

Mareel has faced political resistance from its main funders Shetland Islands Council and Shetland Charitable Trust since the council backed the project on the casting vote of convener Sandy Cluness in 2008.

Only this month the council’s licensing board refused the building a late alcohol licence and last year the charitable trust refused to advance funding already promised to help prepare for its opening.

Mr Gibbons said: “It’s always good to hear that HIE recognise the potential of Mareel and what it will bring in the long term to the Shetland community and economy and they are prepared to consider helping us further if required, should we ask.”

He added that the next few weeks should see a noticeable difference in the appearance of the building currently under construction as progress is made on its exterior.

The senior HIE management team said they were impressed with the dynamic communities and ambitious businesses they encountered during their visit, which included discussions on how to support the north isles of Yell, Unst and Fetlar.

On the downside, HIE has cut the budget of their Lerwick office by one third from £900,000 to £600,000 since last year.