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Thursday, 27 July, 2000, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
The Dome: A politicised tent
Dome model
The Tories came up with the idea for the Dome
The Government has decided to sell the Dome to the Japanese finance group Nomura. BBC News Online charts the history of the controversial attraction.

The Dome has always been much, much more than tourist attraction.

The giant tent in Greenwich has been suffused with political symbolism ever since the former Tory government hit upon the idea of a monument to the new millennium.

Subsequently adopted by Tony Blair's administration, MPs gushed that the Dome would represent all that was good about New Labour and Cool Britannia - modern, forward looking and confident.

construction site
When we were very young: Taking shape in 1998
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott even went so far as to say the Dome would be "the first big test of competence" for the government.

Although finished on time and on budget, the Dome hit troubled waters from its chaotic opening night.

Premonitions linking the government's fortunes to the showpiece attraction appeared to be borne out - New Year's Eve 1999 rang in a troubled era for New Labour.

First ideas

The Dome is erroneously considered to be Labour's baby.

Six years ago, the Tories dreamed up plans to celebrate 2000 with an attraction to entertain, educate and inspire the nation.

The result was the Dome, launched by the former Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, in February 1996.

Dome details
Feb 96: Site purchased
June '97: Construction begins
June 98: "Topping out" ceremony
June 99: Zone designs revealed
31 Dec 99: Celebrations marred by queues
1 Jan 2000: More queues as first visitors enter
5 Feb: Jennie Page told to resign
4 March: One millionth visitor
23 May: 29m hand-out; MPs demand inquiry
21 July: Annual report halves expected income
27 July: Nomura wins bid
A former gasworks site on the northern tip of the Greenwich Peninsula, south-east London, was chosen to house the Dome.

On 23 June 1997, the first of 8,000 concrete piles were driven into the site, followed by the construction of a concrete beam marking out the Dome's 1km circumference.

The 12 trademark yellow masts were next, each 100m long and held in place by high strength cable.

By 22 June 1998, the Dome looked recognisable - the Teflon-coated canopy was on and Prime Minister Tony Blair attended the "topping out" ceremony.

Next came the tricky part - filling it.

The New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), set up to build and run the Dome, commissioned designers to create 14 themed zones.

In June 1999, when the designs were unveiled, an NOP poll for GMTV said more than three-quarters of the population believed the 758 million Dome to be a waste of money.

Millennium night

Yet Prime Minister Tony Blair stuck with the plan to make the Dome the centrepiece of the millennium celebrations.

On 31 December 1999, the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and senior members of the government attended a grand opening ceremony.

Body zone
Early days: Long queues hit the headlines
Unfortunately, many of the 2,000 invited guests had to wait for hours in the cold to pick up tickets.

The long queues became an all too familiar sight the following month.

Much of the media coverage focused on the apparent paradox that attendance figures seemed lower than expected but waiting times, in particular for the body zone, were high.

Just one month after the doors opened, NMEC boss Jennie Page resigned after four years in charge of the attraction. Angry sponsors had been baying for changes at the big top.

Pierre-Yves Gerbeau, formerly of Disneyland Paris, stepped into her shoes.

He streamlined management structures and queuing times, and revised down the annual attendance target - first from 12 million to 10 million, then 7 million.

In May, he secured a 29m National Lottery-funded lifeline for the almost bankrupt attraction.

Pierre-Yves Gerbeau
Pierre-Yves Gerbeau: New man at the big top
In exchange, the Millennium Commission demanded that NMEC board chairman, Bob Ayling, be replaced by British Tourist Authority chairman, David Quarmby, a fellow board member.

Mr Gerbeau has since complained that MPs use the Dome as a political football: "I'm running a business and they are killing it and that is not fair."

By July, three million people had visited the dome, making it the fifth most popular visitor attraction in the world.

As NMEC released its annual report, predicting the Dome would earn just 85m of an expected 194m in commercial income, government ministers examined two bids to take over the attraction at the end of the year.

On Thursday, Japanese finance company Nomura emerged the victor with its plan to turn the Dome into a hi-tech theme park.

See also:

27 Jul 00 | UK Politics
27 Jul 00 | UK
01 Feb 00 | UK
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