Nicola Sturgeon has vowed to listen to concerns about the proposed centralisation of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) board.
Former senior figures at the development agency, opposition politicians, trade unions and Highland Council leaders have all backed the Press and Journal’s campaign to Keep HIE Local.
The Scottish Government wants to axe the HIE board and merge it with several other organisations as part of a new national panel.
But critics warned that the move could set economic development back in the north.
The first minister has defended the decision – saying that the move will “protect and promote” HIE and allow its successes to be replicated elsewhere in Scotland.
Ms Sturgeon spoke while visiting the Highlands and after helping unveil the ambitious plans of the new owners of the aluminium smelter in Lochaber.
Asked if she would take on board concerns about the loss of the HIE board, the first minister said: “Of course we will listen but HIE is going to continue.
“It does fantastic work, I’ve just come from Fort William where we’ve announcing the future of the aluminium smelter and HIE have been central to the efforts to make sure that happens.
“HIE will continue to have a chief executive here in the Highlands, staff in the Highlands, all of its premises that it has got here and will continue to do exactly the same work across the economy that it does just now.
“Not only do we want to protect and promote HIE, we want to replicate its success in the south of Scotland.
“But we want to do that within a framework where all of our economic development agencies and other agencies like Skills Development Scotland work together strategically so we are all pulling together to promote the overall economy of the country.”
Among those who have backed the Keep HIE Local campaign are former chief executive Sandy Cumming and chairman Professor Jim Hunter, who accused Scottish Government ministers of replicating the London-centric practices they insist they are fighting from Westminster.
North politicians from across the political spectrum have all offered their support to the HIE board.