A PROPOSAL to convert a neglected engine house on Portland into a £1.5 million visitor centre is too good an opportunity to be missed, supporters say.

Portland Gas wants to create The Old Engine Shed centre as part of plans for a £350 million gas storage facility on the island.

Local experts say the scheme would open up the forgotten east side of Portland and ensure the building's survival.

Portland Gas yesterday submitted a planning application to Dorset County Council to convert the Grade II-listed building.

The firm wants to convert the site into a valuable tourist attraction featuring an interpretative geology and history display, educational space and walkers' café.

Portland historian Stuart Morris said the project would benefit the east side of the island which, despite fantastic views, is overlooked by tourists.

"This scheme is a great opportunity to exploit the site in the best possible sense," he said.

"The potential there is amazing and this as a most welcome opportunity to open up that part of Portland.

"The old engine house played a big part in the building of the breakwater but it has been neglected.

"Hopefully this project would end all that. This would be a pretty major improvement historically, environmentally and in terms of tourism."

Portland railways expert Brian Jackson said the old engine house is of great historical importance to the island.

He said: "This building hasn't been used since the 1920s and we're very lucky that it's survived.

"It must be saved and this is too good an opportunity for that to be missed."

Portland Gas community liaison officer Rachel Barton said the new visitor centre would be used as a base for environmental volunteers on the island.

She said: "We spent two months consulting residents and groups and we had a very positive response.

"In the past we've seen wonderful initiatives like this falling at the first hurdle. But this is very exciting because it could really benefit local people and visitors alike."

Portland Gas MD Andrew Hindle said the firm is hoping a decision on the visitor centre and gas storage project will be made by the spring.

If the county council backs the schemes work on The Old Engine Shed could start immediately, meaning it would be ready by spring 2009.

Mr Hindle said: "This is a really exciting way of us demonstrating our commitment to supporting and being part of the local community.

"We see it as a great way of giving children a hands-on view of the geology and history of Portland."