Over the years, I’ve enjoyed a few entertaining performances at the Ardhowen; and not all of them were on the stage.
In the mid-70s, Fermanagh District Council meetings were held in the old building, before the marvellous new theatre was built. A bomb had damaged Enniskillen Townhall, and for a while the Council moved out to the Ardhowen.
Pardon the pun, but there were times when Council meetings were “as good as a play”, as my granny used to say. Reporting the meetings for the paper was enjoyable, and I remember on one occasion two Councillors had a, er, lively exchange of views and we all held our breath as John Joe McCusker marched down the chamber to confront Jim Lunny.
Of course it all ended amicably. The two men, both Nationalists and both with a mischievous sense of humour, were very different characters – genuine characters and not the fictional types which would tread the boards later at the same venue. I got to know them both and enjoyed their company.
Jim Lunny was a great campaigner for retaining townland names, and John Joe fought his corner for his area. I recall them both having a sense of community, and not only would they do their best for Fermanagh in their day, both were also conscious of the need to pass things on to future generations.
So they were very supportive of the then Chief Executive, Gerry Burns, a public servant with real vision, when he was the driving force to transform the Ardhowen into the beautiful “Theatre by the Lakes.” And the architecture-award winning building became the envy of many places at home and abroad.
Pardon the cliché, but the “jewel in the crown” was an apt description, but more than just being a beautiful building in a beautiful setting, the Ardhowen under the dedicated and expert guidance of people like Eamonn Bradley and others, gave a real boost to the arts and entertainment. 
Enniskillen, and indeed Fermanagh generally, has a fine tradition in amateur drama and it’s gratifying to see the likes of Adrian Dunbar and Ciaran McMenamin go on to have distinguished careers. About four years ago, I had the pleasure of chairing the Xchange summer school at the Ardhowen when Adrian spoke of his passion for the arts and as a regular visitor to his home town he still boosts the arts here. As does Ciaran, who engaged locals at such events as the film club. The range of activities at the Ardhowen is varied and we are, indeed, fortunate to have such a venue.
It’s starting to show its age, though. Even so, I cannot imagine that the people who got the theatre project up and running 30 years ago would have expected that already the Council is undertaking an exercise to look at the future of the theatre. Some of the options include an upgrade or extension, but worryingly another option is to build another theatre on another site.
All this has been well reported by Colm Bradley in this newspaper.
The situation has led to a number of people expressing doubts about the future of the Ardhowen, and Fermanagh Film Club’s Jules Caithness wrote about “grave concern at the fog of uncertainty” over the theatre which he said had been “horribly neglected.”
The Council attempted to downplay this by saying they have “no plans to sell the Ardhowen site.”
No plans? What if they go for the option of a new theatre on a new site? What happens to the Ardhowen site then? I’d have preferred a straightforward, no we’re not selling it. It’s a uniquely beautiful site and we’d be mad to sell it.
I’m told a meeting was held in August of “stakeholders” which unsettled some of those present, and that no Councillors were present.
I’m wondering how the succeeding Councils over the years allowed the building to get into such a state of repair, to the point where they now need to spend a large sum of money. 
So much money, in fact, that it exceeds the threshold that an “economic appraisal” is required. 
I’m sure some bean counter will weigh it all up; but how do you place on a balance sheet the richness of cultural experience which the Ardhowen has brought to Fermanagh over three decades, and the reputation our centre of excellence has across Ireland?
In the current climate, I think the way we are governed isn’t as “open and accountable” as it should be. There is certainly a massive disconnect between the people and those in authority at Stormont, though one would expect that if any public body would have the ear of the public it would be the local Council.
Some decisions have implications for years to come. I still get annoyed when I walk past the old “streets” area opposite the police station in Enniskillen and see a lot of public sector buildings (some of which are now underused) where once stood a thriving community of people living in homes on the island. 
OK, housing conditions were awful, but homes should have been built there instead of what the planners did with the area.
So, please members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, consider carefully what you do with the Ardhowen. It’s not really yours, and it’s not totally a matter of money.
Part of the problem, apparently, is a lack of car parking. Aside from the fact that this would suggest it’s a popular venue, surely it’s not beyond the Council to sort that one out? 
There are other problems, of course, and I fully accept that these are stringent times.
But if you’re looking for feedback, Councillors, mine is that you should recognise what a magnificent asset you have on your hands. Pluck the jewel out of the crown and abandon it at your peril. In fact, find the money, go the whole hog and turn the “theatre by the lakes” into an even greater asset which will build on what has already been achieved and be lauded for years to come.
Your predecessors, McCusker, Lunny and Burns among other, had the foresight to do that.