By NEIL RIDDELL
LOCAL firm DITT Construction Ltd looks set to begin constructing Shetland’s controversial £12m cinema and music venue Mareel this winter.
The board of Shetland Arts confirmed last Friday that DITT had emerged from the tendering process to build the venue as the best bet in terms of quality and price.
Shetland Arts said it would now enter into detailed negotiations with the company and would be working on the fine detail of the building programme with DITT, as well as examining costs for subcontractors, a task which director Gwilym Gibbons said could take six weeks to complete.
The latest bout of turmoil on the stock exchange, which has seen a sharp tumble in the price of oil and other commodities in the past month, appears to have removed the looming spectre of building inflation for now and Mr Gibbons said he hoped Shetland Arts and DITT would be able to benefit.
He said: “The whole economic climate has shifted significantly and there are options for us to take advantage of that. The good thing is that we potentially have a local contractor, we can spend time with them, our architects and design team exploring in detail how it is going to be built.”
Mr Gibbons said he did not anticipate that the discussions would cause any delay in the building programme, which envisages an opening date of spring 2010, and that he remains hopeful that holes will begin to be dug at the North Ness in Lerwick before the end of this year.
DITT finance director Peter Tait said he did not want to say too much at this stage but that he was confident the company could reach agreement with Shetland Arts on a way forward, adding it was good news for the local economy that a major contract was being kept within Shetland.
“I think it’s important to try and ensure that all the major contracts are kept in Shetland,” he said. “Obviously there will be [a need for] some specialist subcontractors, but the main part of the work will be carried out by a Shetland-based company and Shetland employees.”
Mr Tait said it was possible that the company, which currently has around 120 employees, will be looking to recruit a few more workers to carry out the job, though he stressed that it would not be a big change in numbers.
Meanwhile, Shetland Arts is still waiting to see whether its final application for funding, from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), will be approved and Mr Gibbons said they now expected to have an answer by the middle of the month. A decision was initially due in August and then in late September.
The rest of Mareel’s funding package is made up of £6.1m from the SIC, £2.1m from the lottery fund and £965,000 from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Shetland Arts hopes that the ERDF money will cover its shortfall and any contingencies incurred by the project, the final price tag for which is expected to exceed £12m.
The project to build a cinema and music venue has divided the community since its inception and as recently as this summer several councillors made a concerted effort to halt the SIC’s commitment to Mareel, before its substantial financial contribution was finally confirmed in August.
It is now 15 years since serious lobbying began for a cinema of some form or another and Mr Tait – along with fellow DITT man Roy Leask – was one of the directors behind the aborted Thulium Leisure Ltd project to build a cinema and ten-pin bowling alley opposite the Co-op supermarket in Lerwick in the late 1990s.
The plan would have involved converting and extending DITT’s existing Holmsgarth Road warehouse, but Thulium withdrew its bid for a second lottery grant in 2000 following difficulty over marketing the venture and potential parking problems at the site.
Going further back, following the closure of the North Star as a cinema in 1988, there were proposals for a purpose-built film house next to Clickimin Centre and to turn the old Judane knitwear factory at Gremista into a music venue.
Eventually, the council endorsed the building of a joint cinema and music venue and settled on the existing North Ness site in 2001 before the project was placed – initially unfunded – onto the capital programme in 2003.
Throughout the past decade the project has had its share of detractors and two years ago there was outspoken criticism of the Mareel proposal from the licensed trade, with pub bosses launching an unsuccessful campaign to stop the venue going ahead.