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Future of Horizons to be decided at council meeting

By Gordon Calder

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A DECISION on the future of Caithness Horizons museum and gallery in Thurso will be made by Highland Council today.

The facility closed in February this year after encountering financial problems but since then discussions have been taking place to try and find a way of getting it reopened in time for the summer season.

At a meeting in Inverness today, councillors will be urged to back a phased funding package of over £200,000 to carry out vital works which would allow Horizons to open its doors to the public again after months of uncertainty. The day-to-day running of the building would be taken over by High Life Highland.

Decision day for Caithness Horizons.
Decision day for Caithness Horizons.

Councillor Struan Mackie, Thurso and Northwest Caithness, backs the plan and is urging his colleagues to do the same.

Under the proposal, £77,000 would be spent on the building this year with a further £127,000 in 2020. The work – mostly health and safety related –is required by the board of High Life Highland.

Councillor Mackie said: "Caithness Horizons is a vital part of our tourism offering, not just in west Caithness but across the far north.

"The tourist season is ramping up with more and more people travelling to the county. The street signs are still up, many internet sites still point visitors towards the museum, and too many visitors have already left the town disappointed. We have to act."

He points out that one of the key funders, Dounreay Site Restoration Limited, has "gone above and beyond the call of duty" in providing revenue support of £75,000 for the next three years but on condition the council matches such funding.

"That is the brass tacks of the situation and without local authority funds there is no prospect of seeing the museum reopen," he said. "That would not just be a hammer blow to Caithness but potentially a financially costly one for the local authority.

"It committed to a 25-year agreement with the National Lottery, which funded much of the restoration. There is absolutely nothing to stop the Lottery calling in the millions given to the project, leaving us in an even worse position for our cash-starved council."

The local authority has agreed to provide £75,000 to Horizons in this financial year and it is recommended a similar sum is granted over each of the next two years. Discussions on funding are also taking place with other parties.

Councillor Mackie has been heartened by the ongoing discussions between the interested parties and described as "very productive" a meeting held last month.

"I welcome a concrete proposal being put in front of colleagues," he said. "It is testament to the work of Dounreay and council officers that we now have something to work with.

"I hope my council colleagues seize this opportunity and lay down a marker that we are serious about reopening Horizons."

In a report before the councillors, it is stressed the Caithness Horizons' tenancy of the former town hall building expires on May 31.

It also says part of the agreement with the National Lottery requires the facility to remain open and accessible to the public with museum collections on display.

The agreement could also limit the council's ability to sell the building or change its use. As landlord the council would have to ensure the building is suitably maintained if it is open or not.

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