A LARNE-BASED social enterprise company has announced plans to double the number of job opportunities for disadvantaged local people over the next three years.
Acceptable Enterprises Larne (AEL), a service and manufacturing business which makes parts, accessories and components for a wide range of industries, officially opened its new premises at Larne’s Northern Regional College campus building on Friday.
And the company’s chief executive David Hunter said the new location will allow the firm to expand and potentially increase its direct employment from 14 to 30, with jobs being created both on the premises and at satellite projects in the local area.
The NRC campus on Pound Street has now been renamed Centre Point and will be a shared facility between the college, AEL and the Northern Health Trust. The partnership allows AEL and the Trust to rent part of the premises from NRC, who will continue to provide further education courses on-site.
As previously reported in the Times, the campus was in danger of shutting after it suffered a major drop in enrolment numbers. The new arrangement will help secure the future of the building by ensuring it is used to its full capacity.
Speaking about AEL’s move from its Bank Road premises, where it has operated since its creation in 1999, Mr Hunter said: “Moving into the NRC building means we can grow the organisation in terms of economic and community-based activities to become a true centre of excellence.
“The key benefits of the shared building will be greater efficiencies, better use of an important facility and increased community services.
“Most importantly, this is achieved by putting the three user groups together who, as a result, will gain additionally, better access to opportunities and better support.”
At the official opening of Centre Point, Mr Hunter revealed of the vision for AEL over the next three years and some of the major projects it would be undertaking.
He added: “We intend to look after our core business and continue to work with our existing customer base. We work with a variety of companies throughout the province, from small firms to some of the biggest and best known companies such as Bombardier, who has been a customer for the past 10 years.
“In moving forward we will ensure our core activities remain our core strengths, but we will also be expanding our activities. This building is a great asset and will be used to generate income and provide new local jobs.”
Some of the projects on the horizon include a plan to produce bottled water. Based at Magheramorne, this would be the only bottled water in Northern Ireland to be produced by a social enterprise company and could create between seven to 10 new jobs.
AEL is also looking for a site for a proposed log cabin tourist attraction known as Katies Cabin. Mr Hunter said: “We are convinced of the merits of these four-star cabins to be located along the beautiful Co Antrim coast. The project has the potential to create 12 full and part time jobs.”
There are also plans to create more jobs by developing allotments behind the Centre Point building, and AEL will create a further two jobs by operating a cafe on the ground floor of the premises.
Also speaking at the opening event was NRC chief executive, Trevor Neilands, who paid tribute to everyone involved in helping to make Centre Point a reality.
He added: “It has been quite a long and difficult road to get to this stage. Two or three years ago, NRC reviewed its estate and found that this lovely building was not being used to its full capacity.
“It is very obvious to me that there was a strong will in the community to keep this building as an asset to the town.
“This unique partnership allows it to be retained as a resource for the Larne community. We are grateful to Larne Borough Council, LEDCOM, and political leaders like Sammy Wilson MP and Roy Beggs MLA.”
Cecil Graham, chairman of AEL said: “AEL is delighted to have entered into partnership with NRC and the Northern Trust in this splendid building. In many ways, Centre Point is a very appropriate name, as it will be at the centre of what happens in the Larne community.
“AEL started in 1999 and rented units from LEDCOM, and while we have now moved to these new premises, I look forward to continuing our good relationship with LEDCOM and wish to thank them for their support over the years.”
Ken Brundle, vice chairman of Bombardier Aerospace Shorts – one of AEL’s main customers over the past decade – spoke of the local company’s “professionalism” and said he looked forward to continuing the good working relationship between the two firms.
He added: “The work AEL is doing with disadvantaged people is as good as or perhaps better than that of some commercial enterprises.
“They are providing dignity and a sense of self-respect to those involved. I see joy on the faces on those who work at AEL, and that gives me a lot of pleasure as well.”
Finance Minister Sammy Wilson MP said the three-way partnership at Centre Point was a great example of how trying something different can ultimately pay off.
He added: “I remember when NRC announced that the building had not worked out the way they had hoped.
“The resource was not being put to its best use and something was going to have to change. There was no point on the building sitting here and being a continual drain.
“If something is not working, the way we often try to fix it is to throw more money at it. But what has been done with this building shows that there are other ways to do it.
“This is a good news story for people who may not have otherwise got employment in the Larne area, and it is great that we have people who are so committed to making things better in their own community,” Mr Wilson concluded.