A planned multi-million pound redevelopment of the Erne Hospital site into a public service hub took a step closer to reality yesterday (Wednesday) when it was considered by the First and Deputy First Ministers at a meeting in Enniskillen.

Deputy First Minister Mr. Martin McGuinness said after the meeting they were now "reflecting on how to take the next steps forward".

The project is envisaged as developing on a phased basis with anchor tenant the South West College planned as being the first on site with a campus fit for the 21st century. Others such as the Jobs and Benefits office, Enniskillen library, the PSNI, the court service and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive may follow.

This would create a knock-on effect around Enniskillen. If all public sector offices in the town moved to the proposed hub, a potential 12.6 acres of land mass would be relocated, potentially freeing up sites throughout the town for commercial use. A footbridge parallel to the Johnson Bridge would connect the hub to the town centre. Fermanagh District Council is hoping to purchase the site and either lease or sell to interested public sector parties.

Although the Erne Hospital only closed its doors in June, the clock is ticking on the scheme. It is understood there are time constraints on a funding package worth millions of pounds currently in reserve for the South West College development from the Department of Education and Learning.

The meeting with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness in the Killyhevlin Hotel yesterday (Wednesday) was organised by local political representatives and all six MLAs and the Fermanagh south Tyrone MP Michelle Gildernew were in attendance, unanimous in their backing for the project. Mr. Malachy McAleer, Director of the South West College and Mr. Brendan Hegarty, Chief Executive of Fermanagh District College gave presentations about the proposed scheme.

After the meeting, First Minister Mr. Peter Robinson described it as "a very impressive scheme".

"I think we recognise that the Council has put a lot of work into this along with the people from the education project. We obviously as OFMDFM want to give any assistance that we can. We recognise the real benefits for Enniskillen and the surrounding area. There are challenges in relation to procurement and decontamination that may be required. We will look at those issues to find a way through.

"I think the Council is looking at the issue whether it should procure the site but needs to have some certainty as to what are the costs attached and that is the area we want to talk to the Department of Health about," he said.

Mr. McGuinness said: "It was a very positive presentation. Given the opening of the South West Acute Hospital, it has freed up the Erne Hospital site. I am very impressed all the political parties are involved in this and came together to make the case that it should not be lost and should be used on behalf of the people of Fermanagh. We are going away to reflect on what we heard. It was a very positive presentation on behalf of the Council with Brendan [Hegarty] and Malachy McAleer from South West College," he added.

MP Michelle Gildernew commented: "The timescale is very difficult for the anchor tenant the South West College. They have time constraints on funding package they have available. If this was stretched out for any length of time it may create difficulty for the Department of Employment and Learning in terms of capital investment needed for the Enniskillen campus." That funding package of "several" million is currently in reserves.

"They recognise that capital investment has happened on other sites such as Omagh, Dungannon and Cookstown, all significant investments with award-winning buildings which are energy efficient. The South West College recognises that in the Enniskillen campus they do not have the same environment to study and learn. They want to create a campus for the 21st century. Obviously having an anchor tenant and money available and a vision for the future of the site, it is important to attract other key stakeholders onto the site to create efficiencies that currently do not exist.

"There is the potential for collaboration for instance between the South West College, the Jobs and Benefits office and the library. For example in Cookstown campus the library is there and can open for longer hours and provides a better service to the town." The move could help parking problems in the town, she believes. "If you take the number of students and public sector workers and locate them at the Erne site, you are freeing up parking in the town centre. There will be a better atmosphere in the town and a better environment and potential for further development".

Minister for Enterprise Mrs. Arlene Foster said that while it would be a multi-million pound project, it would result in prime sites around Enniskillen being sold. "It will not be totally self-funding but there would be money released," she said.

"This is something that could be a great example of collaboration with public sector jobs in working out of the same area and sharing services in an innovative way. It is the chance to do something different and new," she added.

Mr. Brendan Hegarty, Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council said: "We have been working with a number of potential stakeholders. Ultimately it will be their decision to participate in the project. It is dependent on them developing their own business case. The South West College is one stakeholder which has probably progressed its business case the most at this point in time." "What the Council is trying to do is enable the project to happen as part of the urban regeneration of Enniskillen." Refusing to be drawn on a timeline, he said: "What we envisage is that the Council acquires the site and we will work with stakeholders to have it developed on a phased basis." The Council and the Strategic Investment Board have already commissioned a review of the development options for the public sector hub. The Council is now preparing a business case to explore the potential purchase of the site and is to carry out a site condition survey.