ANTRIM and Newtownabbey Borough Council is planning to further relax restrictions at the Castle Gardens ahead of a predicted stampede of visitors to the local beautyspot.
Five years ago around 220,000 visitors enjoyed the historic parkland, but by last year that had more than doubled to 450,000.
And it’s not difficult to see why.
In 2019 the Gardens won the prestigious Tourism Northern Ireland Best Authentic Site Experience and in 2019 and 2020 achieved a four star quality grading or excellent status in Tourism NI’s Quality Visitor Grading scheme.
The Gardens proved to be something of a magnet during lockdown, with thousands using its leafy walkways for their daily exercise.
It would be fair to say that the grueling experience gave many locals a new appreciation of the jewel on their doorsteps.
Since this time there has been a gradual relaxation of restrictions around a variety of issues and corresponding recovery of non-essential services.
The main car park has re-opened, though not the overflow parking area.
Outdoor weddings have resumed too for groups of up to 30.
The Clotworthy Courtyard toilets are open again, as is the Garden Coffee Shop, the Conservatory Gallery - with all operating a one-way system to ensure social distancing and support visitor confidence.
A staff presence on site has been maintained in the form of the five-strong Gardening Team, however this team has also been providing ongoing support to the Parks Service delivering of a grounds maintenance service across the Antrim area.
And that has been hugely significant. Millions were invested, so that work must be maintained - even in financially straightened times.
In a document due to be discussed by elected reps on Monday evening, the council acknowledged that that the ground were important to the recovery of the wider Antrim area.
“The natural and built heritage and interpretation of this throughout the Gardens provides a visitor experience unlike other Borough Parks,” said a spokesperson.
Nevertheless, the majority of the staff team are on furlough with the exception of the gardeners and two part time receptionists who could not be furloughed and who provide 10am to 2pm cover over five days per week.
Opening up, lock up and cleaning of the toilets is currently outsourced to contractors at a cost of around £230 per week.
The limits on numbers in indoor spaces such as meeting rooms remain low currently at no more than six people.
“As visitor numbers have grown and the promotion of holidays at home encourages visitors to think about staying local, Antrim Castle Gardens is likely to be a very popular destination for the months ahead both with residents and visitors to the Borough who in turn will support local economic activity.
“The high levels of footfall bring with them visitor management issues from litter, dog fouling, toilet maintenance, visitor enquiries, car park management, communications, site animation and general visitor information and support services.
“It is proposed to gradually reopen the Oriel Gallery, Garden Heritage Interpretation Space, Clotworthy Shop, Parterre Gardens and overflow car park from Saturday August 1 where available staff resources allow.
“Since restrictions began to relax and the car park opened increased use of the Gardens has led to significant car park management issues.
“Reopening of the overflow car park will alleviate this to a certain extent but does require an onsite duty staff presence to manage.
“Safety signs installed along the driveway have been effective at addressing some parking problems on site by preventing double car parking along the driveway but have also led to some irresponsible parking in residential areas.
“A managed overflow car park creates an additional 50 spaces and enables staff to redirect visitors to the town centre.
“It is also proposed to accept bookings of Clotworthy Meeting Rooms for activities involving no more than 6 people, with appropriate social distancing, which are within current guidelines and have no additional resource implications. This will generate income while incurring no costs.
!Delivery of all of the above and management of ever increasing visitor numbers and needs requires additional staff support and it is proposed to achieve this in the main with redeployment from the Community Planning Team.
And there is money to be made.
The shop generates, on average, £3,750 per month. Weddings add another £500 and booking rooms an additional £1,000.