Last spin of the wheel for Belfast

News feature on the imminent closure of Belfast’s big Wheel from the latest edition of The Sunday Business Post

It may not be as old as Samson and Goliath, Harland and Wolff’s famous yellow cranes, yet in just two and a half years, the Belfast Wheel has become an iconic feature of the city’s skyline.

However, the 60-metre tall ferris wheel, located beside City Hall, will not be a Belfast landmark for much longer – the attraction is due to close after its final spin next Sunday.

Since opening in October 2007, the wheel has become one of Belfast’s most popular tourist attractions, and there are concerns that its closure will have a negative impact on visitor numbers.

‘‘We are on record as saying that the wheel should stay, as it is a great city centre attraction and provides a steady footfall for retailers,” said Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retailers Association.

The circumstances surrounding the wheel’s closure remain unclear. The operating company, Great City Attractions, initially lodged an application to keep it open until the summer of 2011. The North’s planning authorities had not processed that request when, two weeks ago, Great City Attractions announced that the wheel would close on April 11.

‘‘We knew it wasn’t going to be here forever, but it seems very premature to remove it with just a couple of weeks’ notice,” Roberts said. ‘‘The owners haven’t released a statement, so we don’t know the motivation for removing the wheel.”

Great City Attractions declined to comment when cont a c ted by The Sunday Business Post, but concerns about the wheel’s continuing economic viability appear the most likely factor behind the decision.

The company, which is also known as World Tourist Attractions, operates ferris wheels in numerous locations, including Copenhagen, Liverpool and Brisbane. While the Belfast Wheel proved extremely popular on opening, in recent months it has been rare to see more than a handful of its 42 gondolas occupied at any one time.

For many people, the wheel has been a symbol of Belfast’s recent transformation. Such a structure would have been impossible during the Troubles, when the city centre was a regular target for terrorist bombs.

Since opening, the wheel has been the site of several marriage proposals and hosted speed-dating events. It even attracted a protester who had to be removed from the top by firefighters.

Resistance to the wheel’s closure has been strong. Several Facebook groups opposing the decision have been launched in recent weeks, and over three-quarters of votes in an online poll on the UTV website were in favour of it remaining at City Hall.

However, not everyone will be sad to see the attraction go. ‘‘We are delighted to see it finally close,” said Susie Miller of the Belfast Titanic Society, a heritage group that has been vocal in its opposition to the wheel. ‘‘Many people don’t realise that the Titanic memorial is right underneath it. We feel it is incredibly insulting to the people whose names are on the memorial, the 22 Belfast men who lost their lives.”

Miller’s own grandfather died in the disaster.

There is speculation that Great City Attractions may move the attraction to Derry or to a site in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter development. But whatever the Belfast Wheel’s next move, a major change in the city’s skyline is definitely on the horizon.