Challenge To Make District Irelandís Outdoor Capital

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

NEWRY, Mourne and Down District Council is aiming to become the Outdoor Capital of Ireland, using the natural resources of mountains, maritime and waterways to attract national and international visitors and to host major events.

This month's meeting of the Enterprise, Regeneration and Tourism (ERT) Committee, held in Newry, was addressed by Mr Mark O'Connell, of Sports Tourism, who urged the council to "have the ambition to be the Outdoor Capital."

Mr O'Connell stressed that unless the council availed of the opportunity then another local authority would come along and "pull the carpet from underneath the feet of Newry, Mourne and Down."

Councillors heard that there was "a wealth of opportunities" in the district and that they should "leverage the assetts."The meeting was told that the region could be enhanced with "an epic story" and that the Mourne Mountains was already an international brand.

Mr O'Connell highighted the "wonderful mountain biking" and other facilties and that no-one else really had that portfolio. Coarse angling had international appeal which had the benefit of anglers visiting areas in the off-season period and there was also hiking, trail-walking, golf, Camlough Lake, the use of the coast and the canal.

And he added that a new portfolio of events could be created.

He felt there could be professional and non-competitive events, incorporating international and national events.

"You should go after events that bring in mass participation," stated Mr O'Connell. "You have to act on this quickly." He told councillors that being successful would provide "a huge dividend with jobs and for the economy." Sinn Fein member Charlie Casey said they needed co-ordination to "pull everything together" even if that meant having additional staff.

He highlighted the potential of the Carlingford Lough Greenway project for walking and cycling and believed that Newry Canal was perhaps the district's biggest assett. They had to aim to change its designation from 'unused' as there was "great potential for small boats to sail to Lough Neagh and perhaps to Lough Erne."

Mr Casey also referred to the potential of the towpath, which was popular, declaring, "We have a couple of real good gems in this area." ERT Director Ms Marie Ward said the towpath continued to be hugely successful and that part of their strategy was to "recognise the need to develop blue-ways and the canal." Councillor Terry Hearty (Sinn Fein) wondered how much money would have to be set aside and if additional staff were needed?

Ms Ward replied that they were focusing on the roles of staff and refocusing them in new areas and said they were planning to build financial assistance into the rates.

Sinn Fein's Willie Clarke said the council needed to have the confidence to be the outdoor capital of Ireland.

"We cannot wait too long," he declared.

"We have to grasp the opportunity and it is a unique opportunity and a real economic generator for businesses in the area."

Mr Clarke felt that "a considerable budget" would have to be set aside and they had to consider how to engage the private sector to help drive it through.

SDLP member Michael Carr said being the Outdoor Capital of Ireland had "a good ring to it" but he feared there would be too much emphasis on mountain biking and cycling. He acknowledged that mountain biking had been "a major success" but he was concerned that there would be an over emphasis on it to the detriment of other activities.

Mr O'Connell said there had been 3.5 million social media views of Red Bull's sponsored events but stated that you could not depend on one activity "to lead the charge."

Councillor Declan McActeer asked how could they deal numerically with an influx of visitors? Were there enough places offering accomodation?

"Carlingford Lough is wide open for development but we need a major injection financially from Tourism NI," he said.

Mr O'Connell said the private sector would not invest unless it had the confidence. Other activities, like glamping and camping should be considered. People's entrepreneurial spirit was also important. The private sector became confident when they saw what was happening, and if there were spin-offs.

"Commercial brands will want to get involved in quality events," he said. "Everyone is in the game, from taxi-drivers to hotels." Councillor Glynn Hanna (DUP) asked if they would be targetting specific types of sports or would they be all embracing? Ms Ward said the framework would examine the district's key strengths and then to maximise them.

Independent member, Davy Hyland asked if any niche sports had come on in the last 10 to 20 years that they could cater for?

Mr O'Connell said there was now "a culture of wellness," which was why activities like mountain biking were so popular. People were looking after themselves more later in life and were seeking different challenges.

He said it was known as "performance leisure." Trail running events sold out in no time, he added.

Councillor Andrew McMurray (Alliance) recalled that he spent his youth trying to get to Outdoor Capitals.

He cautioned as to how they should differeniate between outdoor sports and asked if there had been an audit on such sports? ERT Assistant Director Andy Patterson said that had been done "to a degree" and that they were now looking at where "the low hanging fruit are that we can go after."

Mr O'Connell said they had to "aim high and prioritise," as well as having the ability to look at smaller events that could not be passed over. He then cited the example of Limerick which had successful frisbee throwing, baton twirling and other small niche events.

The DUP's Harry Harvey asked which of the district's mountain bike trails was the most popular? Ms Ward said that Kilbroney was the most popular for those seeking an adrenalin rush while Castlewellan was popular with families.

Members then agreed to accept the recommendation of the proposed Sports Tourism Outdoor Events Framework, which will aim to make Newry, Mourne and Down 'a premier, year round mountain and maritime destination in Ireland recognised for its EPIC experience in outdoor adventure, its rich tapestry of cultural heritage, myths and unique stories, and its authentic local life'.


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