An island waits
Portland may have suffered the indignity of getting second billing to Weymouth and third to London whenever the Olympics is mentioned, but as Katie Carpenter discovers, Portland has been gearing up for this for quite some time
Published in January ’12
One gets an idea about just how committed those seeking Olympic glory are when glancing into the weights room of the Ocean Spa in Portland. Under the gaze of their coach, members of the Hong Kong squad, each of whom hopes to qualify for the windsurfing competition, are working out hard before heading out to the waters to practise their skills once again. At the time of this visit, it was exactly a year to the games; it was also three years since the squad had started their Olympic preparations, much of which has been spent in Portland and in the waters off Portland.
Given that none of the team members had, at that point, actually qualified for the Olympics, there is every chance that many will inevitably have devoted three to four years of their lives to something which cannot be achieved. Multiply this squad by the number of nations competing and then a multiplication again for those nations competing in more than one of the ten Olympic medal events and it rapidly becomes clear that on and off for a number of years very many more than the 380 athletes who will ultimately qualify for the games will have been living and training in Portland and Weymouth. This represents a significant investment in the area, in accommodation, in the use of facilities like those at the Ocean Spa and in terms of the money going into the tills of shops on Portland and in Weymouth.
The massive Southwell Park complex has had an interesting post-military career. In addition to private accommodation, small business units, the Ocean Spa and the luxury Venue Hotel, the site has been proposed as an academy venue for a new school in Portland. Whilst this proposal is not related to the Olympics, one school which is directly related is that of the new infants and primary school, Chesil – which will replace the old Underhill Juniors School & Brackenbury Infant School – being built adjacent to Officer’s Field near Osprey Quay; it will be finished after the Games have gone, by Christmas 2012. The Officer’s Field development site, which was the Mere Tank Farm storage site in the old Royal Naval Air Station (HMS Osprey), has room for 77 homes. An initial batch of 58 low-carbon homes has been built by ZeroC developments and is being leased as a whole to the Olympic authorities for ten months as the Olympic village for the games, before being sold.
In the last five years, what is now Opsrey Quay has changed almost beyond recognition. As well as the Sunseeker luxury-boat yard, Portland now has a new Dean and Reddyhoff boating marina of 560 annual berths together with a range of buildings including a bar/restaurant, administration and office space, washroom facilities, maritime business units and landside boat storage.
Whilst some observers have seen the Olympics as an unfortunate opportunity for short-term profiteering on the accommodation side, the owners of the marina have had to take the long view. They have handed the site over to the Olympic organisers for the lead up to, and the duration of, the Games. They also constructed the marina’s 875 metre tipped-stone breakwater. Over 250,000 tonnes of stone was used in the breakwater and land reclamation, all sourced from local Portland quarries. As well as providing shelter to its own marina’s boats, it keeps the WPNSA waters calmer too. The marina, though, will benefit greatly from the massive international coverage that Portland Harbour will receive thanks to the presence of the Games.
As well as the sporting and leisure side of maritime activity, Portland Port is looking to take advantage of the extra publicity that the harbour will receive thanks to the games. Its background as a naval port means that it has deep channels and no height restrictions, and with no great tide to contend with is able to berth ships in just half an hour from their arrival. Adding to this is Portland’s sheltering mass from prevailing south-westerly winds and it is positioning itself as an ideal commercial and leisure port, and a safe haven in stormy weather. Another arrow to its quiver is its proximity both to the busy English Channel shipping lanes and, or course, the natural splendours and tourism potential of Dorset itself and indeed destinations further afield like Bath and Stonehenge. With its ability to handle ships up to 300m (975ft) long, possibly the port’s greatest weakness has been people not knowing about it, which is something that is unlikely to be the case after the Olympics.
With a recent item on the government’s agenda being ‘social tourism’ – the financial aiding of holidays for the less well off – and experiences from elsewhere in the EU that for every pound spent on tourism, one pound fifty comes back in taxation, the centre of the Dorset Olympics – the WPNSA, could well hold the key to part of the future prosperity of Portland, and by extension, Weymouth. The National Sailing Academy, in conjunction with the Chesil Trust, has been encouraging youngsters, both from within the local area and incoming youngsters to sail for a fiver.
BT has installed new fibre optic cables into Osprey Quay and is upgrading Portland telephone exchange and broadband speeds up to 40MB will be possible, which, given that Portland is defined as rural in area-designation terms, must make it rather better provided for than any other rural area of Dorset. As well as having the potential to benefit local residents, this will in particular make Portland an attractive location for business and investment, notably at Osprey Quay, where there is a cluster effect in marine technology taking place around the WPNSA and Osprey Quay.
The Revive Portland group, awarded the Inspire Mark by the Olympic organising committee, is based at Underhill, and has been actively working over the past three years to ensure that enhancements and improvements are made to the Underhill area as a result of Portland being a host location. When Revive opened the Ideas Shop in Fortuneswell to find out what the people of Underhill wanted as a legacy from the Olympics, most said that they wanted Fortuneswell improved. This has been happening across a number of different areas. The first goes by the name of Guerilla Gardening, where volunteers are reclaiming waste spaces and creating new, pleasant places for the community to enjoy. There is also a concerted effort, called Revive Fortuneswell, which is planned to improve the Fortuneswell area, working with building owners and volunteers to improve the streetscene and generally create a much more positive atmosphere. Part of the way in which people have been coming on board is through community events, of which a wide range has been organised, including the Portland Show, Hallowe’en celebration, a Lerret event and Christmas celebrations.
Businesses, local people, local and national government all seem determined to, and so far successful in, ensuring that Portland will be left much healthier economically, socially and environmentally than it was before the games. Some of this is, in essence, a lucky co-incidence of the withdrawal of the military presence and the availability of its land, the existence of the SWRDA, the decision of the Royal Yacht Association to site a new sailing academy and finally the awarding of the 2012 Olympics to London. Coincidence or not, Portland is ready to accept the opportunities presented.
Portland’s Olympic Legacy Plan’s success
The late, lamented Southwest Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) in conjuction with the local authorities governing Portland laid out a number of schemes in order to precede and succeed the arrival of the Olympics in Portland. First among these was the regeneration (or actually the creation) of Osprey Quay; The Mere Tank Farm oil tanks were removed by Weymouth and Portland BC in partnership with and funding from SWRDA. Land used for 2012 support facilities and to generate long-term employment; the construction of a new marina, new WPNSA, a business park and centre for marine excellence with the aim of generating new jobs, particularly for local employment in industries surrounding marine excellence; The Portland marina scheme attracted £25m of RDA investment; the WPNSA received an Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) investment of £8.5m, and the Royal Yacht Association (RYA) put in an investment £2m. The net result of this is an ongoing ability to secure world class sailing events (and therefore their participants, support teams and media) thereby generating substantial income for the locality in accommodation, employment and retail. The second boost is by way of a significant improvement to local marine infrastructure and of the environment. The degree of ecological work required simply for the breakwater at the WPNSA involved studies below the water, above the water and at the water’s edge. The employment target is already underway with over 350 new jobs having been created and
The WPNSA alone has brought £100 million into the local and national economy (based on £10million per year and 350 full time jobs per annum). Osprey Quay has already grown to be a vibrant centre of marine activity and the long-term potential for significant increase in full-time employment opportunities seems strong.