A "ONCE in a generation" opportunity for Inverness has been grasped by Highland Council as it has confirmed plans to buy the ugly office blocks in Upper Bridge Street which have blighted the riverside for years.
The Inverness Courier revealed exclusively last week how redevelopment of the site will form part of a bigger plan to create a major new tourist attraction at Inverness Castle once the courts transfer to the new justice centre in Longman Road next year.
The local authority confirmed on Monday that it has put together an ambitious "£5 million-plus" bid to buy the office blocks and the public will be consulted over what will go in their place.
A deal is about to be signed with property firm Inverness Estates which currently owns the two 1960s buildings and retail outlets underneath.
The sale price is commercially sensitive at the moment, but is expected to be disclosed at the end of the month.
Highland Council already owns the neighbouring museum block.
It has branded the project "Inverness Castle – spirit of the Highlands" and it will feature information and stories about the Highlands, with the aim of inspiring people to visit other parts of the region. It will also incorporate the North tower, which has been open to the public as a viewing platform for more than a year and Inverness Museum and Art Gallery.
Locals and tourists can also look forward to new galleries which will host national and international exhibitions, displays celebrating the creativity and beauty of the Highlands as well as "retail and catering" which showcase the best of what the region has to offer.
A new hotel could also be created as part of the makeover.
The project is to be part-funded by £1.5 million from the £15 million Scottish Government contribution to the Inverness-Highland City-Region Deal.
The remainder will involve hefty borrowing by the council although it said it would benefit from the rents of the various businesses in the existing buildings.
Speaking at the castle Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing, co-chairman of the steering group overseeing the castle redevelopment, said the investment would support economic growth and create a "sustainable, viable and must-see attraction to celebrate the spirit of the Highlands".
He added: "It will create a once in a generation opportunity for future redevelopment for the city and the Highlands to create something of high architectural value – precisely the opposite of the existing buildings."
Equally thrilled council leader Margaret Davidson said: "This has been a long-held ambition.
"It will help us achieve our vision for this iconic site and Inverness Castle’s place as part of a range of tourism assets this region has to offer."
Highland planning director Stuart Black confirmed the purchase price was "over £5 million", adding: "We’re still in final discussions with the owner but it will be agreed by the end of June and then we’ll release the purchase price."
He said the options for the site were to renovate, to redevelop partially – perhaps by removing the upper deck – or what he termed "comprehensive redevelopment".
Project manager Graham Watson, of High Life Highland, said: "It’s a one-off opportunity for Inverness to really look at how it see its future for Castlehill."
The attraction envisaged for the castle will promote the Highlands’s "creativity, wellbeing, culture, heritage and natural environment".