Weymouth's Olympic Legacy
PUBLISHED: 14:39 25 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:39 25 July 2013
PICTURE BY: DORSET MEDIA SERVICE
Last summer Weymouth hosted the Olympic and Paralympic sailing events. A year on, what benefits have the investment and media attention brought the town?
Last summer breathtaking images of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast were beamed across the world. It was all positive stuff, as we watched heroic sailors battling for supremacy on the aquamarine sea against a backdrop of green rolling hills and an historic Georgian townscape.
There is no doubt that the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic sailing events put Weymouth well and truly on the international map. However, nearly a year on opinion is divided over whether the massive investment involved in preparing the town to stage the Games is paying-off. It did cost a lot of money - £77 million was spent on the new Weymouth Relief Road alone and other traffic-easing solutions, including an intelligent traffic light system, cost a further £15.5 million.
Weymouth’s business community largely believes it is money well spent. “Many things were enhanced in order to put the Games on,” says Mike Goodman, the Weymouth and Portland Councillor responsible for Corporate Affairs and Continuous Improvement. “Things like the high-capacity broadband, an improved highway network and an increased frequency of rail services - those benefits remain and are reflected in new investments and new jobs as companies come here on the back of the Games.”
Some in the tourist trade seem less sure and speak of squandered opportunities. They also point out that the high-capacity broadband arrived eight months behind schedule, way too late for the Olympics, and the road improvements created a year or more of traffic chaos.
Dave Price, Chairman of the Weymouth’s Hotel and Guesthouse Association, believes little was done to capitalise on the tourist potential offered by the Games. As he prepared rooms at his Molyneaux Guest House, he talks of how few visitors were actually attracted to town by last summer’s Olympic events. Initial predictions of 850,000 people pouring into the town proved wildly optimistic. The final statistics suggest there was a shortfall of some 350,000 visitors. Dave believes that many stayed away because of the constant warnings of traffic congestion.
Mention of Weymouth’s Olympic legacy brings a wry laugh. “We call it the Olympic lethargy,” he tells me. “The powers that be really haven’t tried to take advantage of the amazing free publicity we got last year. They just seem to be sitting back and expecting people to come. We had meetings with the council two years before the Olympics and asked: ‘What’s the plan for 2013?’ We were worried because everything seemed to be geared towards 2012 with little thought for the future. Sadly we’ve been proved right.”
At Hamilton’s coffee shop and restaurant, a stone’s throw from the town’s pier, long-time proprietor Ernest D’Agostino was equally unimpressed: “The Olympics were a lovely event. The atmosphere was great but it really didn’t bring much business to the town. The authorities spent months changing all the roundabouts to traffic lights and then they closed the town to traffic while the Games were on. Why do that?”
Customer Valerie Ramsay nods in agreement, but is a little more optimistic. “It’s going to take a couple of years but eventually I’m sure we are going to see some good things happening.”
On Weymouth Pier gift shop traders, Keiran and Steph Wilkinson, found that the Olympic Sailing attracted a rather elite crowd, mainly day visitors, who weren’t particularly interested in the traditional British seaside. “There were signs up everywhere in the run-up to the Games saying don’t come to Weymouth because it’s going to be so busy,” said Keiran. “A lot of the regulars stayed away and those that did come weren’t really beach people. The town didn’t do very well.”
At the Sandworld Sand Sculpture Park, boss Mark Anderson is philosophical about the negative aspects of the Olympics which he says cost him £20,000 in lost business. “People stayed at home and watched the Olympics on television, that was tough for local businesses and I’m afraid that one or two of them went down. But for those that managed to hold on things are beginning to look positive. The Olympics was such a morale-boosting event and Weymouth and Portland looked fantastic on television. I’m sure we’re going to benefit in the future. All the hassle over the infrastructure and the traffic lights will be worth it in the end. In fact things are already looking up. To me the future really does look golden.”
Councillor Goodman, a retired Naval Commander, is also convinced that the future is looking promising. He stresses that increasing visitor numbers was never one of the driving factors behind the pre-Olympic improvements and tourism is just one relatively small contributor to the local economy. “From the road network through to facilities at Osprey Quay to the whole Naval Air Station area, so many things were enhanced in order to put on the Games and those benefits remain. These local structural changes will attract new investments and new jobs to the area.”
However he believes that the biggest legacy of the Games is international recognition of where Weymouth and Portland is geographically and what the area looks like. This has already brought a dramatic increase in the number of cruise ships visiting the town with 2013 stacking up as the busiest summer on record. Nineteen ships carrying around 20,000 passengers are scheduled to visit the port between May and September. That’s nine more than last year.
There is more good news too with the imminent return of Condor Ferries. Last year the company was forced to transfer its popular Weymouth cross-Channel services to Poole while essential repairs were carried out on the ferry berth wall. These are now nearing completion and fast crossings to the Channel Islands and St Malo are due to start from Weymouth again in July.
Councillor Goodman admits that brief trips ashore by foreign holiday makers are unlikely to generate huge income but he hopes that many of the visitors might be impressed enough to return and stay longer in the future. “We only need one entrepreneur to decide they like the place and would like to build their next factory here and we’ll have had had a real bonus.”
There are promising signs in the property market that the Olympic sailing events have helped kick-start new interest in the area, as Polly Greenway, managing director of estate agents Domvs, explains: “The Olympics undoubtedly raised the profile of the area. People who otherwise wouldn’t have considered Weymouth are becoming interested.”
Potential buyers, she says, would often overlook the Weymouth area in favour of properties in Bournemouth and Poole, or beyond in Devon or Cornwall if they were considering a relocation. She believes the exposure offered by the television coverage has finally focused attention on Weymouth - and its new road system makes it a viable proposition.
“At the height of summer it could take up to an hour to get into Weymouth from the main A35. With the new road system we don’t have that problem any more. That’s a huge advantage and it’s absolutely down to the Olympics.”
With stunning new developments in areas like Green Hill and Bowleaze, parts of Weymouth are even beginning to offer an alternative to the Sandbanks crowd. “Weymouth has really changed,” says Polly. “The much higher profile and improved transport links are an undoubted legacy of the Olympics. We would not have had any of that if it hadn’t been for the Games. We’ve just got to build on it."
Sustaining the legacy
John Tweed, the outgoing Chief Executive of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy reflects on life after the Games
The Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (WPNSA) burst onto the global sporting scene last summer as the hub for the Olympic and Paralympic Sailing events and I am extremely happy that the spotlight is still upon us today. Already in 2013 we have been inspiring sailors on a local, national and global level.
Locally the Academy has now helped over 10,000 children try sailing for the first time through our ‘Sail for a Fiver’ legacy programme funded by the Chesil Trust with the support of energy providers, SSE, and leading lawyers Charles Russell.
We now annually invite 1,600 children to sail on the Olympic waters. The Academy has world class facilities for disabled sailors so we were delighted to put these to good use when we kicked off this year’s programme by introducing a group of special needs children to their first ever outing afloat. Now in its ninth year our community engagement is continuing with the launch of the Chesil Sailability Group which encourages those with disabilities to take up sailing.
I am also delighted that one of our first ‘Sail for a Fiver’ children, Adam Greaves, who tried sailing for the first time back in 2004 is now a fully-fledged RYA Dinghy Instructor, a huge achievement.
On a national level the Academy is very much the nation’s chosen sailing centre. We will be hosting no fewer than six national championships ranging from the traditional Flying Fifteen keel boats to the Topper dinghy class which continues to attract big fleets.
The on-site facilities and sheltered option of Portland Harbour have been a real pull for the UK’s youth classes. We have enjoyed the Optimist Class Association, RS Tera dinghies, 29er team and Topper squad training over the Spring months providing plenty of atmosphere at the WPNSA.
Globally, the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy is now synonymous with high quality big fleet events across dinghies, big boats and windsurfing. 2013 is also a year for World Championships on site with three of these large scale events heading to WPNSA for their most important event of the year.
Competition to attract associations such as the Dragon class is hot as some of the most prestigious yacht clubs from around the world work to book these events at their venue years in advance.
It is a real honour to know that out of all the international waterside venues, the Academy has caught the eye of such high profile events and the best part is we can satisfy all of their requirements both ashore and afloat.
The UK’s top international event, the Sail for Gold Regatta for all the Olympic and Paralympic classes also took place in June and many of last year’s Olympians and Paralympians will be competing in that event. All these events not only benefit us but also draw new visitors and businesses to the area.
Away from the sporting arena the Academy has branched out into the weddings market and now has a civil marriage licence, so we are looking forward to hosting 15 waterside weddings over the summer months.
This is a fantastic addition to our water sport credentials as the location offers the romantic backdrop of the Jurassic Coast.
In addition we host many business conferences or ‘Awaydays’ where staff can enjoy the atmosphere of a top competitive venue and indulge in some on water-themed team building.
Despite all this top quality competition, the venue remains open to all and is available seven days a week for casual visitors to drop in, enjoy the performance atmosphere, or just relax with a latte on our balcony overlooking all the action. We hope to welcome you to the academy soon.
Discover more at wpnsa.org.uk or call 01305 866000