PLANS to close Millisle’s historic Ballycopeland windmill heritage site less than two years after a £1.7m refurbishment have ‘devastated’ the local community.

The closure announcement came after senior officials at Ulster Supported Employment Limited (USEL) told staff that their jobs at both the Ability Cafe and as tour guides were ‘at risk’ due to a ‘funding shortfall’. The complex is due to close on March 31.

Officially opened in June 2022, the heritage visitor attraction and cafe are managed by USEL who provide employment opportunities for people with disabilities and health conditions.

Attracting 19,000 visitors in its first seven months as a heritage site, Ballycopeland is the only windmill left in the world that uses the hooper roller reefing system to harness the power of the wind. Refurbishment work included a new access road with car parking, as well as a revamp of miller’s cottage and the kilnman’s house.

Nearly 1,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the local jobs to be saved and the doors of the Ability Cafe and heritage site to be kept open.

Backing the community campaign, local politicians have called on the new Minister for Communities, Gordon Lyons, whose department invested £1.2m to refurbish the heritage site, to step in to save the windmill’s future and local jobs.

Hailed as a ‘haven’ for some of the borough’s most vulnerable residents, there are currently three contracted employees, five casual staff and three associate tour guides working at the globally significant site.

In order to preserve this valuable community asset USEL requires a financial commitment for three years; this includes funding of £50,000 for the incoming financial year followed by £55,000 in the next year then £60,000 for the third year.

USEL took over the management of the site following a massive investment from the Department for Communities, with an additional £500,000 coming from Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs’ Rural Tourism Fund and £30,000 from Ards and North Down Council.

Jo Scott, chairwomman of Millisle Community Association, said the local community had been delighted to be part of the windmill refurbishment plans and described the closure plans as ‘awful’.

She said: “It is awful. £1.7m was invested in restoring the windmill and extending the car park to allow tour buses and tourists from the cruise ships to visit and to build the cafe. Now less than two years later they are closing, it doesn’t seem right.”

She said members of the public were ‘appalled’ to learn of the closure plans. “Every person that has frequented the cafe is absolutely appalled that they are closing because it is an ability cafe, they are young people with special needs, it is horrific.”

The chairperson said she had been contacted by concerned local parents who had hoped their children would be able to avail of employment opportunities at the cafe.

“One of the key things is the cafe is run by USEL for adults with learning disabilities and difficulties, it is a haven. Many pupils from Killard House go along for work experience.

“A mother told me her expectation was that her child would go on to work in the cafe, that it would be close to home and that would be advantageous. If the cafe closes all of the staff will be out of work, it is particularly hard for young adults, they are fabulous.”