The council will spend £8,500 to send four elected representatives and an officer on a four-day USA trip to promote local tourism.
At a meeting of the council’s Economic Growth and Tourism Committee on Monday night, councillors voted to make a return visit to the Milwaukee Irish Fest, despite the 2015 trip being criticised as “smacking of gravy train culture.”
The cost of each person’s attendance is around £1300, in addition to £2000 for stand fees, print and promotional materials.
A report presented to councillors described the Milwaukee Irish Fest as “the largest celebration of Irish heritage in the United States” which was attended by 145,000 visitors last year.
This year, councillors were given the options of sending six people at a cost of £10,000, sending a smaller number of elected members, sending council officers with a Mid and East Antrim Borough Council stand, or postponing attendance and providing information to Tourism Ireland for them to market Mid and East Antrim’s attractions.
UUP Councillor Lindsay Millar told the committee she was “generally quite sceptical” about attending the event.
“I’m not sure there is any way of detailing the return on this, so I propose that we don’t attend and provide information to Tourism Ireland,” she stated.
Cllr Millar’s proposal was seconded by Cllr Mark McKinty, who said he didn’t think the trip could be justified at this time.
“The people who attend are interested in a package and Tourism Ireland could sell The Gobbins as part of that package,” he stated.
However, DUP Councillor William McCaughey proposed that council send a reduced number of four elected members, made up of Economic Growth and Tourism Committee Chair Cllr Billy Ashe, Vice Chair Maureen Morrow, the steering group chair and Cllr Billy Henry.
“I agree that six people is too many to end but we could reduce that number to four, rather than becoming part of Tourism Ireland where we would be lost in the plethora of other tourism options they are promoting,” he stated.
Cllr McCaughey’s proposal was seconded by Mayor Cllr Audrey Wales, who had previously taken part in the Milwaukee event.
“We are going to promote mid and East Antrim, not just the Gobbins,” she said.
“We have a package here and we need to start selling it.”
Independent Cllr Jim Brown said that a package of East Antrim’s attractions needed to be put together “to encourage people to stay more than one day.”
“We are looking for dollars to be spent in mid and East Antrim,” he said.
However, Cllr Brown said he believed the effectiveness of attending would “wear off,” and warned he might not support another visit next year.
Alderman Gregg McKeen stated: “We need to go out there-it’s not a jolly. You are out standing from morning to night for four days, you are not running to America and seeing sights.
“From the Republic of Ireland there are four or five areas: the Ring of Kerry, the Cliffs of Mohr, the Atlantic Coastline, they are pushing it and people don’t know what is on offer from a Northern Ireland perspective.”
“We need to go out and sell it and remember we are selling Mid and East Antrim as a whole: Carrick Castle, the whole coastal route, the Gobbins, Slemish, Ballymena.
“Sending four people will be worth it to go out and sell Mid and East Antrim.”
In response to TUV Cllr Brian Collins’ query as to how to quantify the results of the visit, a council officer said it was a “very difficult thing” but that there were a “high number” of visitors from the North American market.
Chief Executive Anne Donaghy said that 55 per cent of visitors to The Gobbins had been from “out of state” ie America, Japan etc.
Cllr Millar’s proposal not to attend the event and to provide information to Tourism Ireland was defeated by 11 to two with two abstentions.
Cllr McCaughey’s proposal to send four elected members was passed by 11 to two.
An amendment proposed by UUP Alderman Robin Cherry to also send one council officer was carried unanimously.
Subject to ratification by full council, the August event will be attended by Ald McKeen, Cllr Henry, Ald Morrow, Cllr Ashe and a council officer.