A HIDDEN gem tourist attraction in the Wee County could receive city deal support if it can align with its strategic outcomes.

A £750,000 business case to support the restoration work at the Japanese Garden at Cowden was heard at the July 26 meeting of the Stirling & Clackmannanshire City Region Deal Joint Committee.

Part of the deal's investment in culture, heritage and tourism, committee members concluded they were minded to approve the project, but are first keen to see in more detail how the garden will contribute to the strategic outcomes.

Committee chair and Clacks Council leader Ellen Forson explained the committee was not just there to “rubber stamp” the government decision to include the project with members having to be clear on “what we are asking in return for funding”.

She spoke of the four strategic outcomes of the city deal: inclusive economic growth, higher value jobs, shared prosperity and an inclusive skills ecosystem.

Cllr Forson said: “It even says in the report that this project doesn't deliver on these and I think we've tried to fit around to determine how we can try and get the project to actually deliver things.

“I think it sets a dangerous precedence because this is the first project in the deal that's going to be fully funded and on the ground delivering, unless we are very clear on what we expect the garden to deliver in return for this funding, I think it puts us on shaky ground for future projects and undermines our credibility.”

Papers and a presentation for the committee explained how much of the restoration activity has already been undertaken at the garden, which “spent at risk” to bring back to life the unique attraction, where visitor numbers have been exceeding expectations.

The business case did make a commitment to the inclusive skills ecosystem, “but not the other strategic outcomes”, it said.

The presentation heard that 90 per cent of employees are female and lived within the city region, but Cllr Forson explained she wanted to know how many of them came from the most disadvantaged communities.

She added: “We are supposed to be providing higher value jobs for our most disadvantaged communities and I can't see that being delivered here.

“How will the garden promote tourism across the region area?

“I think at the briefing it was highlighted that the garden at the moment has four pictures of tourism [attractions] across the region, one of them is in Falkirk which isn't in the region deal – it's just not there for me."

The councillor concluded: “It's our job here to make sure we are getting the best deal for our communities.

“Anyone who has visited the garden knows it's a special place and that it adds a lot to Clackmannanshire but we need to be clear about what this deal is offering, not just to Clackmannanshire but the wider region.”

Cllr Martha Benny, also on the committee, was in agreement and added the garden is “absolutely fantastic”.

She highlighted the need for everyone to benefit from the investment, but also explained how remote the garden at Cowden can be for those who do not drive.

“It's a beautiful place," she said.

"I just need to know we are using the same criteria for all of our projects and not making that a special project because that would be wrong.”

The business case committed to sustaining 30 employment opportunities and providing at least 500 volunteering, learning and work experience opportunities each year.

However, Cllr Forson agreed with the issue around connectivity, saying it's an hour's bus journey from Alloa followed by a half an hour walk, wondering how many people can access it for volunteering or employment opportunities.

A final decision was deferred to the next meeting to allow the garden to provide more details.

Last year, the garden hoped to welcome 10,000 paying visitors, but the figure was already at 38,000 by September 2021.

According to the meeting papers, nearly nine out of ten visitors came from outside of Clackmannanshire, showing that the garden has been successful in attracting visitors to the area.

Documents added: “City Region Deal investment is needed to help develop the infrastructure and permanent facilities required for the continued operation of this unique new tourism offer for Clackmannanshire.”

The garden was created in 1908 by pioneering Scottish explorer Ella Christie.

She was the first woman to travel from the West to meet the Dalai Lama and one of the first women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society.

Inspired by her solo travels to Japan, she chose a female designer – the gifted Taki Handa – to create the seven-acre site in the grounds of Cowden Castle.

In doing so, The Japanese Garden at Cowden became the first and only garden of its size and scale to be designed by a woman.

The unique attraction was almost lost forever when it was destroyed by vandals but the restoration has seen the involvement of world-class experts, including the renowned Japanese architect and garden designer Professor Masao Fukuhara.