Thursday, 10 September 2009

£15m masterplan for John O’Groats

Good first impressions’ over bid to tempt tourists to stay for longer than 15 minutes
By Iain Grant
Published: 10/09/2009

MAKEOVER: The John O’Groats House Hotel would be refurbished in the first phase of the plans

A £15million plan that would double the number of visitors to rundown John O’Groats by creating a new village was launched yesterday.

The area attracts 112,000 visitors a year – but many linger no more than 10 to 15 minutes.

Spread over 12.4 acres, the proposals include creating a focal point artwork or sculpture, a harbour square, and the restoration of coastal paths to Duncansby Head and to the John O'Groats Mill.

The first phase costing £3-5million will involve refurbishment of derelict John O’Groats House Hotel.

The hotel, with its distinctive north-facing towers, has continued to deteriorate.

Consultants behind the blueprint set out plans for the area which is famous as the start or end point for charity marathons to and from Lands End.

An arched gateway feature over the start/finish line is planned as well as a harbour square and children’s play area with commercial units.

New self-catering lodges are also proposed to the west of the village, as well as new coastal paths.
This is due to be followed over the next 20 years with a new central retail area, visitor centre, improved car parking and toilets, and a new hotel.

Public development officials in the far north are confident their blueprint can succeed where a series of others over the past 20 years have failed. They are now looking for private investment to kick-start phase one.

Local community representatives have generally welcomed the plans to transform the famous end-of-the-road area, overlooking the harbour.

The plans were revealed by consultants GVA Grimley, hired by Highlands and Islands Enterprise to draw up the masterplan.

GVA’s Richard Slipper said the design was to encourage people to spend more time at Groats after a survey showed the average visitor stays no more than 10 to 15 minutes.

A questionnaire prepared as part of the £40,000 study found only a third of those questioned had a positive first impression of the place.

Mr Slipper said: “On a conservative estimate, John O’Groats attracts about 112,000 visitors per year.

“We believe that can be doubled over the longer term and, through making the place more attractive, we think we can increase the tourist expenditure by a factor of two to three.”

HIE envisages phase one being completed in two to three years.

HIE’s Carol Gunn said: “This masterplan gives John O’Groats the opportunity to offer visitor facilities which will match its iconic status.

“This for the first time gives a plan for the whole site rather than piecemeal development ideas.”

Ms Gunn said HIE is talking to prospective private-sector investors, and added: “It is, of course, going to be very challenging in the current climate.

“We are however working with colleagues from Scottish Development International to move forward and get investment interest.

“There is investor interest out there despite the recession.”

Ms Gunn said HIE is sure the new plan will be good news for employment, although the agency has not made any specific projection of the number of jobs which could be created.

The plans were given a cautious welcome by of Dunnet and Canisbay Community Council chairman John Green. He said: “First impressions are very favourable. It’s quite well laid out and there’s loads of good ideas.

“What most people in John O’Groats view as the number one priority is getting the hotel back in business.”

Far north MSP Rob Gibson said: “This third attempt to get a viable plan for John O’Groats seems acceptable but ambitious.

“I believe that step by step its recommendations can be developed.”

Mr Gibson has in the past backed plans for a community buyout of the derelict hotel and the adjoining land.

He believes this option should be kept open.

He said: “I fear we will not see immediate progress if there is no compulsion on the owners of John O’Groats Hotel to modernise it.”

Among those at yesterday’s launch was a retired lighthouse keeper John Groat, 87, who can trace his family back to the 15th-century ferryman Jan de Grot after whom John O’Groats is said to have been named.

Mr Groat, of 16 Provost Sinclair Road, Thurso, said: “I was quite impressed with what is being proposed.”

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