Saturday, March 16, 2013

Flagship CNSHN 'ski academy' project cancelled

It came as a bit of a surprise, but the writing's been on the wall for a while now. The towns flagship project, the Centre for National High Level Ski Studies has been abandoned.

Quartier Bulle barracks - white elephant?
The FFS (French Ski Federation) announced on Thursday that they were cancelling the project as there wasn't enough support or commitment from the various organisations involved (coded words for 'we couldn't get the money together').  This is a major blow to the future of Bourg St Maurice, as it was hoped the centre would generate up to 100 new jobs and possibly €4 million of extra income. The old army barracks, the Quartier Bulle, is one step closer to becoming an expensive white elephant, as this was to be the base for the CNSHN and related sporting  and leisure activities.

So why did it all unravel? Here's a short history of the doomed project:

  • In 2001 the French Government passed a bill aiming to set up a number of poles for 'High Level Sport Training',  to improve the country's Olympic prospects and to encourage wider sports participation (France too has an increasing couch-potato problem).

    FFS officials and local dignitaries visit Cachette in 2010
  • In response, in 2007 the FFS said there was a need for a centre for young people (of secondary school age) who were talented at skiing to train to become future world class athletes. Apart from improving France's ranking in World Class skiing, there would be spin-off benefits to the sport as a whole and the community which would host it.  Several locations in the French Alps were considered, including Chamonix and Albertville (which is now looking like a possible alternative location). The centre would cater for 110 athletes.
  • In 2009 Bourg St Maurice was chosen as the location for the new centre, on the basis of being close to many major ski resorts, having the FFS-homologated Cachette piste which would be reserved for training and competitions (with new tunnels under it for hapless tourists wanting to get back to Arc 1600!) and the vacant Renouveau holiday centre, which was then viewed as an ideal base for the project.

    The project was going to cost €6 million euros, and as the full effects of the credit crunch had yet to be felt no one thought there would be any problem raising the money. The centre would open in 2012/13, just after the final departure of the 7BCA army regiment from the Quartier Bulle barracks.

Damien Perry - forced to resign

  • However in 2010 a massive argument broke at at the Conseil Municipal (local council) when is was discovered the true cost of the project would be  €14m euros! A third of the councillors resigned, forcing the mayor himself, ex-pisteur Damien Perry, to resign in April 2011. There were subsequent council and mayoral elections, with Mde Jacqueline Poletti returning as mayor (she had previously held the office during the 1980s) - she was largely seen as a safe pair of hands in a time of crisis.

    The project was revived, and support was sought from the regional authorities. It was decided later that year to house the CNSHN in the newly vacated barracks, rather than on the crumbling Renoveau site, which in itself was going to cost €4m to adapt and renovate.

    Crumbling - derelict Renoveau holiday camp
  • In 2012 the town received compensation for the departure of the 7BCA (which led to a reduction of the  population by about 1200 and the loss of up to 300 jobs), of which €1m was dedicated to the CNSHN project. But there were still serious doubts about where the rest of the money would come from, and town council started to worry that the they couldn't afford it (it was estimated that the running costs would be over €2m a year).

  • The biggest nail in the coffin, however, was a big row last year about paying for the normal education requirements of the (now only 94) student athletes. Setting up new school facilities in the Quartier Bulle was going to be expensive, and the students would be isolated from their local peers. So  it was strongly suggested by the regional authorities that the students the could actually live (as well as study) in the 'Cité Mixte' (grouping of local schools on a new site developed a few years ago), leaving the role of the old Barracks site rather in question...  The town wasn't happy with the proposal, which was seen by the FFS as a dimming of their support for the whole project.

With so many unanswered questions and potential problems, it seems hardly surprising to anyone (except Mde Peretti, apparently) that the FFS would call time on the project, as least as far as Bourg St Maurice goes.

Cachette piste at Arc 1600
Once again the town is staring into a financial and political abyss, but it's not for the first time. The rise and fall of the Hydro-electric development in the 1950s left the town in a similar position. It was saved by the Les Arcs project. The recessions of the 1970s and 1980s hit the town (newly reliant on ski tourism) hard, but it survived, flourished even. Now there's new, and harder challenge: to find something to buoy the future that doesn't rely on the slowly diminishing ski industry, that is sustainable and makes sensible use of the town's increasing catalogue of disused real-estate.

    But at least the wonderful Cachette piste at Arc 1600 is still their for all to enjoy, and the new Mont Blanc lift is a legacy of CNSHN fiasco.

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