WEYMOUTH (Reuters) - Once host to the Royal Navy and George III’s summer dips, the English town of Weymouth is proud of its nautical heritage and glad of the chance to rejuvenate it with the staging of the 2012 Olympic regatta.
When the Royal Navy pulled out of neighboring Portland in the 1990s it followed a trend already set by the departure of the commercial fleet from Weymouth.
The decision to host the London Olympic and Paralympic sailing events in Weymouth Bay and Portland Harbor in Dorset, some 214 km south-west of the capital, has sparked a sense of maritime regeneration.
“It will blend and work well together — the past and the future,” said Peter Tambling, ex-Harbor master at Weymouth.
The main sailing venue will be centered on the national sailing academy at the old Royal Navy base, HMS Osprey on Portland.
The Games are expected to raise the area’s profile and turn it into a maritime centre to rival other sailing hubs along England’s South coast, including Poole and the Solent.
A 560-berth marina is planned at Osprey Quay and another smaller one in Weymouth.
“This is a most wonderful part of the world to sail,” said Reg Paveley, an 81-year-old who lives on Portland and still sails and runs a shop.
“It has the smallest tidal range in the UK, you are straight out into the open sea and there is the beautiful Jurassic coastline — there is nothing to compare with it in the UK.”
The disused naval accommodation blocks are being transformed into luxury apartments while there is provision for affordable housing and marine industry, retail and leisure units. The town is expected to get its first four-star hotel.
Boat builder Sunseeker has moved from Poole to Portland Harbor, eventually bringing up to 500 jobs.
Councilor Kate Wheller of Weymouth & Portland Borough Council, said: “What is fantastic is that as the marine industry grows, the gap left in the local economy when the Navy left in the 1990s is being filled.”
The marine business and sailing are estimated to be worth 400 million pounds to the local economy.
Nick Brewer, a 55-year-old management consultant, said: “There’s a general feeling of anticipation and a positive outlook to the Games.
“Weymouth is slightly parochial. It’s a delightful town with beautiful surroundings. I don’t want it changed but we cannot stand still.”
Hotels and bed and breakfasts are seeing early interest.
Judith Allan, co-owner of The Chatsworth B&B in Weymouth, said she received her first booking for the Olympic fortnight within 17 minutes of the town being chosen.
Most of the 400 competing sailors will be looking for accommodation as they train in the years leading up to the Games. Some are buying property.
“We have had sailing teams from various countries buying property to use as a base,” said Anthony Goss, manager of local estate agent Palmer Snell.
Locals believe a planned 84-million-pound relief road is key to the Games’ success and legacy.
“If people are stuck in their cars for four to five hours at a time, they won’t want to come and visit,” said Annabelle Smith, a 38-year-old chef living in the area.
Not everyone is entirely happy though.
There are doubts, for example, about the planned marina and pavilion property complex on Weymouth’s peninsula because of possible flooding.
Fishermen are concerned for their nets and lobster pots which dot the shoreline if there is an increase in the number of small vessels.
While the increased tourism may be a good thing for some hoteliers it could prove to be a double-edged sword, B&B owner Allan believes.
“It could keep the traditional visitors away,” she said, “or it could accentuate the differences that already exist between the Harbor yachties and the beachfront bucket-and-spade tourists.”
Editing by Steve Addison