Ambitious plans are in the pipeline which could see Gosford developed into Northern Ireland’s ‘first five-star family forest park’ at a cost of more than £1 million.
And central to the overall experience would be the creation of a new visitor centre and café, which itself comes with an estimated price tag of £350,000.
The need to develop Gosford Forest Park comes in the wake of declining visitor numbers in recent years.
Uncertainty has also surrounded the future of the deer enclosure.
But the future of the forest park – which has been used as a film location for both Game of Thrones and the Frankenstein Chronicles – is looking on the up.
Late last year saw the opening of a new state-of-the-art play park which would be just the starting point for putting Gosford firmly back on the map.
Public consultation events have taken place and a ‘scoping study’ carried out by Outdoor Recreation NI, the key points of which have been presented to Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.
Outdoor Recreation NI was commissioned by the former Armagh City and District Council in March last year “to assess the current and future potential as both a tourism and community resource, to evaluate the site’s commercially viability and to investigate and identify opportunities for development”.
The council is now to open initial discussions with the Forest Service to consider a legal framework for collaborative working, and will allocate spending to prepare an economic appraisal.
Annual attendance figures have dropped over a five year period by almost 30,000 – from 82,572 in 2009/10 to 53,137 in 2013/14.
There are only six forests in the ABC Council area. And Gosford is the only designated Forest Park, and council has been told, the only one with potential to be a ‘standalone tourist attraction’.
The scoping study has revealed elements and costings for inclusion within the redevelopment vision for Gosford.
In addition to a visitor centre and café, the plans would include a new walking trail system at a cost of £200,000, and story-telling would be incorporated through interpretation into the walking trails.
An enhanced family cycle trail would also be seen as a key feature of the plans, which would also include a sculpture trail and the development of a Gulliver’s Play Trail.
Car parking provision on site would be extended.
The toilets at the car park site would be upgraded and further toilets installed at a youth campsite.
Picnic areas would be developed around the visitor ‘hub’ and main car park, and seating installed around the play car park and walking trails.
A new ‘brand’ would be drawn up for Gosford Forest Park and new signage installed throughout.
To realise the ‘five-star’ vision for the park it has been recommended that development should take place in phases.
The first would entail the iconic visitor centre with café, unique forest holiday accommodation – including camping and caravanning – explorative recreation trails – walking, running and family cycling network – adventure play, unique branding, and engaging signage and interpretation.
The main findings of the scoping study showed that the forest park is not realising its full potential, but could be both a significant tourism driver for the area and a valued community resource. The poor condition of the site and facilities is indicative of a gradual reduction and current lack of investment. Car parking and access to the site is a significant issue and there are currently missed opportunities for income generation.
Councillors have been told there is demand from the private sector to manage desirable elements and a strong desire from the local community to be involved in the development of the forest park.
The report states: “Historically the private sector has found it challenging to work with Forest Service NI and it is recognised that by creating a legal agreement between the council and Forest Service NI there will be more flexible ways of encouraging private sector developers.”
Outdoor Recreation NI reports: “If developed appropriately, Gosford Forest Park could successfully compete with other Forest Parks across Northern Ireland that are major tourist attractions. This includes the neighbouring forests in Newry, Mourne and Down Council area, including Castlewellan, Rostrevor and Slieve Gullion.
“Whilst these forests differentiate themselves through their unique products, such as Castlewellan and Rostrevor both being ‘National Mountain Bike Trail Centres’, and Slieve Gullion recognised for its play trails, all appeal primarily to the ‘adventure’ market.”
Councillors have been told that, in contrast, although Gosford Forest Park may not be able to stand out because of an individual unique product, it does have the potential of becoming Northern Ireland’s ‘first five star family Forest Park’.
The outcome of phase one, the report states, would result in a significant upgrade of the key attractions to a standard that gives value for money to existing users, attracts new visitors, creates a positive visitor experience, and encourages them to stay longer and return in the future.
It would also create an environment which attracts private sector investment.
The next steps will see discussions with Forest Service NI to consider the benefits of developing a legal agreement, as well as a masterplan for Gosford Forest, including all trail design.
Council will also be able to ‘test the market’ for private sector interest in managing elements or ‘packages’ and look to submitting bids for funding.
Two local development plans have also been produced for Markethill and Tandragee and both highlight the importance and value of Gosford Forest Park to the development of the respective towns.
The ‘Markethill Development Plan 2015’ highlights that Gosford Forest Park recommends that “the development and use of Gosford Forest Park should be promoted as a unique and attractive natural facility within the Council area”.
It states that there is an opportunity for partnership working between different accommodation providers in the local area, including Clare Glen Caravan Site, Teepee Valley Campsite and Lurgabouy Lodge, with “each reaching out to each other for a common purpose”.
The development of Gosford Forest Park is recommended under the umbrella of both ‘tourism development’ and ‘sports/recreation’ to be completed ‘before 2020’.
The Tandragee Development Plan 2015, which complements the Markethill Development Plan, states that, along with Tandragee Castle/Tayto Factory, Clare Glen and Teepee Valley Campsite, Gosford Forest Park is an “important tourist and accommodation attraction”.
The overall redevelopment would also look to address significant issues surrounding access to the forest park. The main entrance witnesses many visitors parking on the hard shoulder and visitors are also forced to do so on busy days when the main car park is full.
Parked cars block the view of cars leaving the forest park and people entering and exiting the forest park do so on a stretch of road which has a 60mph speed limit, as it is the main road between Armagh and Newry and gets heavy use from articulated lorries
Cars block the hard shoulder which pose a threat to preventing emergency vehicles gaining access as necessary, councillors have been informed, but moves would be made to address this as part of the overall vision for the County Armagh site.