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Olympics Already Regenerating Depressed Portland

One of the reasons for hosting the Olympic Games in 2012 is the chance to gain the sort of regeneration enjoyed by past hosts such as Barcelona in 1992. What was once a backwater has become a destination in tourism and commercial terms. Although some benefits of the games can be monetised and accounted for, life is not always like that and it helps sometimes to have a vision of what they actually look and feel like.

The best example I have seen recently is the National Sailing Academy at Portland in Dorset. The London 2012 Olympic sailing venue is finished and being used now. It is a brilliant venue, using the natural sweep of the bay surrounded by world heritage Jurassic coastline as a perfect competition space and natural amphitheatre.

From a sustainability point of view, the venue has a great story to tell. According to CEO John Tweed, it started in 2003 with a couple of people with "a vision and no money". The withdrawal of the MOD from Portland left this enchanting area of coastland with significant unemployment and economic problems long before the credit crunch. An area of contaminated land with some buildings, redundant fuel tanks and a slipway only suitable for hovercraft was acquired from the MOD by a new social enterprise to form the National Sailing Academy. A lot of hard work supported by investment by the local Regional Development Agency saw the birth of a new organisation.

The selection of the venue for the Olympics provided a further boost to the area and more investment by the ODA to upgrade the facilities to Olympic standard. This involved additional hardstanding for boats, facilities for disabled sailors and improved slipway conditions. It is the first project ever to be awarded the highest CEEQUAL award for environmental excellence in civil engineering.

The project had significant environmental challenges, from protection of coral, to habitats for sea horses and a rare microscopic worm that is unique to this particular bay. The first precious consignment of mud and worms was transported to the laboratory by Securicor, the van was held up by a gang of hapless thugs who successfully made off with several boxes of mud. I am sure Ronnie Biggs would be in awe of this daring and well planned robbery.

The venue is becoming a social and economic success story. Elite sailors sail in the same water as kids from local schools or families enjoying the local residents "Sail for a tenner" taster days, this gives the place a very inclusive feeling. The arrival of the Olympics has attracted private developers to build a Marina that will be used during the Games but will also attract boat owners.

As a result of this an excellent restaurant has been opened nearby with more leisure and shopping facilities to come, all this brings much needed employment to a deprived area. Weymouth and Portland in July is not quite like a February day in Hackney but the economic and social challenges are still there to be tackled.

This project is a great example of the "virtuous cycle" concept of social, economic and environmental sustainability working in harmony. It is also a great blend of social entrepreneurialism, public and private investment coming together to support a community with due respect to the environment.

(Pic: gbffe cc2.0)

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