IAN Paisley has warned the economy will lose £12m if authorities don’t step up and save the North West 200.
Northern Ireland’s biggest outdoor sporting event, which only returned this year after a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic, is said to be at a crossroads and could be halted due to a lack of funding.
Key volunteers involved in the event are also retiring, including veteran course manager John Adams, who is stepping down this year.
North Antrim DUP MP, Mr Paisley, told this newspaper that the clock was ticking and a rescue plan was needed within weeks.
“This cannot be lost. It cannot be allowed to go,” he added.
“We have six to eight weeks to get something in place. Everyone knows what needs to be done.
“Permanent secretaries of the concerned [government] departments are good about the details.
“If They Don’t” [do something]another great opportunity [for] Northern Ireland will wither on the vine.”
Mr Paisley’s warning comes months after race organizers criticized Tourism NI after losing £800,000 in support for the North West 200 and Ulster Grand Prix.
The funding package, intended to bring the events under the same organizational umbrella, was signed by two Stormont departments, but Tourism NI declined to support the offer on “financial and legal grounds”.
As a result of that decision, this year’s Ulster Grand Prix was cancelled, although the North West 200 still went ahead, giving Paisley confidence that he can be saved.
“Despite the challenges, we succeeded,” he says.
“We worked hard to make sure it could take place. All the funding commitments and all the work done over the past year and a half have come to naught.
“The North West 200 was let down.”
Mr Paisley, the chairman of Stormont’s Motorsport Taskforce, said public authorities needed to realize that the event was a tourist asset.
“It has been an important economic driver for almost 100 years. Until they can understand this and muster the resources and money, this issue will swing from pillar to post until it [the North West 200] just give up,” he said.
“The event must professionalise. The organizers accept this, but they cannot be expected to do it on a shoestring budget.”
Paisley also praised the volunteers, who he believes were responsible for the success of the races, and called for a cocktail of support measures.
“It will bring £12million to the local economy and many businesses will suffer if it is cancelled,” he explained.
“Most of those behind it are on the wrong side of their 50s and have been doing it for 30 years.
“They’ve built it into a modern company that needs modern business support.
“That should be made available from Tourism NI, the municipality and the government services.”
Former race director Mervyn Whyte, who remains at the helm of the event, has told Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council what the North West 200 needs to survive and thrive.
The list includes more money, the appointment of a full-time manager, and the municipality responsible for setting up the 8.9-mile trail.
Coleraine and District Motor Club [the organisers of the races] are really at a transition point in the history of the Northwest, and we need to think about the changes that are needed now,” said Mr Whyte.
“The value to the area of the North West 200 is enormous. We are at a crossroads and we need to make a transition and secure the future of the North West 200 for the municipality and for the people who live and work here and who benefit from what the event gives back.”
Mr Whyte, who also requested office space for backroom staff, called for a decision by next month.
Local UUP councilor Norman Hillis said he understood the event had received £100,000 in funding from the local government and a further £100,000 in support.
Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council said it was exploring ways to help the races.
A spokesperson added: “The council is working with the Coleraine and District Motor Club to develop solutions to support the North West 200 going forward.”
Councilors will discuss the issue at a leisure and development committee meeting next month.