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Monument to a New Millennium

Billion-dollar dome in Greenwich will serve as exhibition center and auditorium. But critics see it as a waste of money.

June 26, 1998|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Something that looks like a giant tent has sprung up where the millennium will begin, and Britain's politicians are rejoicing.

Construction of the outer skin of the billion-dollar Millennium Dome, twice the size of Britain's largest soccer stadium, was completed this week, and Prime Minister Tony Blair says it's so good it should be kept for posterity.

The dome ought "not to be torn down after a year as we previously envisaged," Blair said, wearing a yellow hard hat and looking elated as he toured the Greenwich riverside site east of London on Monday. "When I look at it and I see it today, I think this is too good to be torn down. We should have a use for this and a use that lasts."

He didn't specify what that use would be. Right now, the plan is for the exhibition center to combine an auditorium with a dozen-odd pavilions with themes such as time, the environment and education.

British politicians like to argue that the millennium--technically--starts in Britain. This is because Greenwich is the meridian line marking zero degrees of longitude, from which time zones are reckoned.

But although the futuristic dome is the darling of Britain's hip Labor government, it has aroused widespread skepticism in a nation that suspects it may be no more than an elaborate exercise in hype and a huge waste of money.

Blair may call it "a symbol of British confidence, a monument to our creativity and a fantastic day out," but a recent poll by the MORI firm found that only 8% of the public thinks that building it was appropriate.

Respondents of another survey in March, a Gallup Poll published in the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper, expressed indignation at the amount of money being lavished on the center. Most--59%--said they would rather that the funding, half from government coffers and half privately raised, be used to improve hospitals; 25% of respondents said it should be spent on public schools.

But one in five also expect to visit the dome, at about $30 a pop. About 12 million people are expected in the first year.

More grumbles have been reported in the media about whether contractors for the dome are British enough; why European-style cafes and not British pubs are being encouraged in the vicinity; whether the millennium should be celebrated with more explicit Christian symbolism; and whether people should be moved from public housing in Greenwich to make way for the dome.

"The British government will be spending the equivalent of 12% of its annual defense budget on a calendar event whose meaning and importance none of those involved can, it seems, convincingly summarize," the weekly Economist magazine complained.

In a sign of Britain's high confidence and relative prosperity, the government is planning big millennium celebrations all around the country. The dome, a project that Blair's team enthusiastically took over from their Conservative predecessors after winning a landslide election victory 13 months ago, is only the most flamboyant.

About $6 billion has been earmarked for special projects. In addition to the Greenwich extravaganza, they include refurbishing sports stadiums in Cardiff and Glasgow, setting up a national network of bike routes, building museums and galleries in Salford, Leicester and Newcastle and constructing a huge greenhouse in Cornwall in southwestern England.

Blair's people are clearly aware that persuading the reluctant people of Britain to love the dome is a key to their own continued political success.

"If the Millennium Dome is a success, it will never be forgotten," said Peter Mandelson, a minister without portfolio who has taken charge of the project. "If it is a failure, we will never be forgiven."

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