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 Public Meeting to discuss the future of the Assynt Visitor Centre, 9 November 2016, Lochinver, Scottish Borders

Public Meeting to discuss the future of the Assynt Visitor Centre, 9 November 2016, Lochinver

Public Meeting to discuss the future of the Assynt Visitor Centre, 9 November 2016, Lochinver

• 37 people attended the meeting chaired by Helen Acreman.
• Madeline MacPhail gave a brief history of the Assynt Visitor Centre which opened in 1995. Visitors to the centre said they were more likely to stay longer and return to Assynt. In 2003 the owners of the building, Highlands and Island Enterprise, sold it on the open market to a company registered off-shore in Guernsey. Visit Scotland still continue to lease the building. However nowadays visitors book and get information online: hence the income stream for Visit Scotland has nearly disappeared.
• A letter was received from the owners of the building in Lochinver in June 2016 stating that Visit Scotland was considering pulling out and asking if the local community was interested in either leasing or purchasing it. Visit Scotland has subsequently given the local community a commitment that there “will be a manned presence in Lochinver in 2017”.
• A possible future model for Assynt was provided by the community owned and run Visitor Centre in Gairloch which had been run by Visit Scotland. The local Development Trust supplied a custom-built building which the community runs with two part time staff and volunteers. The income, which has jumped from £4000pa to £20,000pa., comes from the shop and cafι and from running training courses and events. They have offered to come and talk to us. It was noted that the Gairloch centre sold crafts mostly from around Scotland rather than locally made.
• The purpose of the meeting was to gather ideas and explore the way forward. The meeting was opened to the floor.

Points of financial clarification were sought
• Visit Scotland spend around £30,000 per annum on wages, rent etc. Two local people are employed to keep the Centre open seven days per week from Easter to October.
• There is a tacit lease where each party can withdraw with 45 days’ notice. The current lease is due in May 2017. No one could predict what the owners would do with the building if VS withdrew. It was suggested that there may be a clause in the deeds to say that the Assynt Community Council have a say in what the building is used for.
• VS get a grant each year from the Highland Council to run visitor centres in the Highlands. However the grant each year has been reducing and may be coming to an end.
• Starting point would be a business plan with all the ideas and a projection of what these might earn. We need to quantify the enormous uncertainties about the costs and make enquiries with the owners. There are a number of buildings in Lochinver and this might not be the best option.

Suggestions as to the possible future uses of a visitor centre.
• Wet weather venue. A charge could be made for entry to the exhibition space. The existing exhibition space could be revamped for pool tables or slot machines.
• Centre of knowledge with interactive interpretation: geology centre and/or a wildlife/ecology centre; culture; archive & genealogy.
• Future of the centre linked to the NC500.
• A multiplicity of uses/possible income streams.
• Place to sell Made in Assynt crafts. However, it was felt that this would kill the monthly market in the Village Hall and thus lose the Hall a £1000 income. Selling crafts would not save the Centre: a lot of crafts would need to be sold to make a difference.
• Opportunities to help visitors book ahead, to find them a deer watching opportunity or boat trip for example, or to book them, or arrange for them, a specific tour or guided walk and charge 10%.
• Retailing could be the future direction of travel and that as more folk came to Assynt there would be more scope to sell (albeit considering local sensitivities).
• Should consider the arts and heritage such as at Timespan and Brora Heritage Centre which make use of volunteers as part of the operation.
• Space for sculptures and visiting artists to display their artwork a gallery/shop.
• Charity shop.
• Voluntary scheme to help cover costs.
• Ullapool Museum was being revamped and that people came in to find out about the heritage and the wildlife. There is a charge to enter.
• There are over 16k visitors annually-we could charge £1 entry fee/use of the toilets.
• Two separate things: a museum type centre and a place to give information to tourists that could be based in the Mission for example.
• Define the physical boundaries of Assynt (it was confirmed that “Welcome to Assynt” signs were in progress).

The current building and its suitability.
• There was some hesitation about getting involved in a project which may become a white elephant and that we first needed to prepare a business case.
• Starting point must be to find out the owner’s intentions regarding the lease, whether they would be prepared to sell and, if so, the possible asking price.
• The fabric of the building was not in good shape: in particular the metal work at the front was rotting. A professional survey of the building would be required.
• The possibility of moving to cheaper premises was raised. The vacant room at the Mission was instanced.
• There was a need to focus on what the community wanted and what we expect to achieve and then think about how to pay for it.

Conclusion
It was agreed that notes of the meeting would be published in the Assynt News and emailed to all attendees as well as put on the Discover Assynt FB page.
Further meetings would follow and a working party set up to follow through and discuss any further suggestions.

Public Meeting to discuss the future of the Assynt Visitor Centre, 9 November 2016, Lochinver, Scotland