THE possibility of buying the site of the old Strabane Academy on the Liskey Road is to be investigated by the council.
At a meeting of the body councillors agreed that following recent vandalism at the site the council should contact the Education Authority (EA) to discuss the possibility of acquiring the site with a view to using it for sport, play and recreational facilities.
They will also write to the Department for Communities to notify it of the potential availability of the site for social housing.
The matter was raised by independent councillor Raymond Barr who explained, “It seems to be the case that when any building becomes vacant vandals move in, within a week of this school closing the building was vandalised.
“I feel it would be perfect for creating of a heritage visitor’s centre, park and nature trail utilising the burn which runs alongside the school.”
Highlighting that the gate-house at the site was also the homestead of the world-famous hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander, Cllr Barr added, “Not only does this give us the opportunity to establish a project which will be genuinely cross-community, but it also gives us the chance to establish a truly tourist-friendly centre which can be used by everyone, and the history of Strabane can be showcased in a positive manner.
“I’m very mindful of financial restraints but I feel it would be criminal not to explore some means of acquiring the site.”
Sinn Féin’s Ruairi McHugh backed Cllr Barr’s motion but asked that it be amended to extend the uses for the site. He said, “Bear in mind we have the Riverine project coming down the line so to have a project as specific as this could risk duplication in terms of funding. It can definitely be used for community use and social benefit.
“It’s an ideal site as there is already sewage, water electricity etc, which is always an incentive for social housing development.
“There are also a number of sports pitches on the site which could dovetail with some of the aspirations within the playing pitch strategy and play strategy.”
UUP councillor Andy McKane said to lose the historical value of the site and to toss the gate-house for social housing would be a shame.
Mayor Michaela Boyle added, “It is right that we move to acquire this site and that this happens very expediently.”
The SDLP’s Jason Barr said he would prefer if the site was kept as a heritage and historical site but was open to exploring other uses for it and ways to get the community involved.
Sinn Féin’s Dan Kelly explained the EA had known for years it was going to be disposing of this land but had not engaged with council in terms of planning for this site.
He said, “There’s this hiatus between what they know, when they know it, and then getting involved with the community they are vacating from. It’s not acceptable.
“There needs to be reform in how departments are operating especially given that community planning is now central to council. We need to know a few years in advance so can plan finances etc.”
The motion was passed 29 in favour, none against, and one abstention.