Monday, April 14, 2014

ZAC des Alpins (the old barracks): future or fiction?

Michel Giraudy, new mayor of Bourg
Congratulations to M. Michel Giraudy and his team of councillors elected from the 'Agir pour l'avenir' group, on becoming the new mayor of Bourg St Maurice. Giraudy is a genuine tourism professional, having been head of the Val d'Isere and Courchevel tourist offices for many years and now running his own consultancy business. He also worked at Club Med and was involved in organising the 1992 Albertville Olympics.

I think M. Giraudy is going to be glad of all this valuable experience when he tackles his mayoral in-tray. Top item will be the 'ZAC des Alpins' project, upon which, we are led to believe the future prosperity of Bourg St Maurice largely depends. This huge scheme to redevelop the old Barracks on the southern edge of the town is likely to provoke much controversy and need a huge amount of imagination, commitment and acuity if it's to succeed, qualities which have been lamentably lacking in dealing with recent failed projects such as the Centre for National Ski Studies, the Renoveau fiasco and the mineral water bottling plant farce.

Le Quartier Bulle, now ZAC des Alpins
To recap, in 2011 the 7th Brigade of Chasseurs Alpins departed the barracks, which they had occupied since before the First World War.

The soldiers were highly respected by the town community, and contributed greatly to the economy, and social and sporting activities.   Bourg suddenly lost nearly a third of its population (1500 out of 5000), but gained a sprawling complex of hangars, yards and logements spread over 7 hectares. This was 'sold' to the town for €1 euro by the Ministry of Defence, perhaps anxious not to have to find the €400,000 per year needed just to maintain and secure the site while empty!

At the time Bourg was expecting to host a new National Centre for High Level Skiing Studies  (CSNHN, a kind of ski university - see previous blogs), and the old barracks were to be its home. However, owing to spectacular bungling and vaccillation by the council under the then-mayor Damien Perry, the FFS changed its mind and chose Albertville instead. So, the old barracks became a bit of a white elephant.

Detailed proposals of the new 'UTN ZAC des Alpins' project have recently been made public and presented to the councillors. The scheme involves retaining some of the more interesting (and older) buildings, demolishing the ugly ones and building some new ones. . The aim is to construct a 'Development Zone' in which will be the following:
Architect's impression
  • Four star hotel, luxury tourist accommodation and short-term tourist lodgings totalling 1500 new beds
  • Conference centre
  • 'Wellness' health centre with spa, fun-pool etc.
  • Shops, cafés, etc. and an entertainment venue
  • Craft village
  • Memorial to the 7th BCA regiment
In addition there will be new housing for saisonaires and 'parkland' within the complex. A striking feature is the proposed series of waterfalls fed by the adjacent Arbonne river. But, remember this is Bourg St Maurice, so there has to be the obligatory 300 new car parking spaces and two new access roundabouts on the main road!  

Acknowledging that the ZAC des Alpins is on the 'wrong side' of the town as far the transport/mountain access/commercial infrastructure is concerned, the proposal includes the provisions of 2 shuttle bus services (reaching the funicular in 2 minutes, apparently) and a possible new walkway to the station  

The proposals, which have been put together the Society for the Development of Savoie details the benefits to the town: eventually  the local economy will enjoy an extra 20m euros of income per annum from a mixture of increased lift-pass sales (2.4m), accommodation (10 - 14m) and spending in bars, shops, restaurants etc ( 5 - 7m). The project would create about 500 new jobs, about half of which would be permanent and the rest seasonal (winter I assume).

It all looks very slick and impressive, but there are obviously quite a few question marks about Bourg's ability to bring off a project like this. Firstly, the town is going to have to find 12 million euros to fund the project, spread over a period of 3 or 4 years. The government is expected to pitch in another 3 million, but it will take 10 years for the cashflow to become positive and half the money the town will provide will be borrowed. This is on top of the its current debts of around 40 million, but SAS reckon that initial interest repayments on all these loans can be made by making cuts to services and 'management savings'. This all sounds rather risky for a number of reasons.

The location, location, location of the site is undoubtedly a problem. Who would be prepared to pay to stay in a sumptuous 4 star hotel which then involves a bus ride and then the funicular to get to the snow? The SAS figures quote an average annual occupancy rate of 75%, whereas in the last few years the figure generally in Bourg St Maurice has been 46% (from Vivre en Tarentaise). It's strange that the Dutch hotel group Valk are mentioned a possible exploiter of the new hotel: they have dozens of 'resort' hotels in Holland, a few in France and Spain but none in Alpine or mountainous environments. I hope this doesn't mean some of hotel groups active in the Alps haven't already shunned the idea!

Another threat to the high street?
Secondly, the plan to put in shops and craft workshops can only detract from the struggling town centre, and make it a less attractive proposition for casual visitors from the Arcs resorts. It contradicts much of the councils policy and actions to try and 'redynamise' the town centre - there is already enough pressure from the supermarket end of town, with all its parking, cafés and choice of large shops. Even if the proposed commerces within the ZAC were well patronised by the new clientele, this would hardly have any positive effect for the town centre: it's too far away for people to want to stroll down to the Rue Pietonné if they have shops etc. on hand in the ZAC.

Thirdly, I can't really see how the a conference centre in a fairly inaccessible town like Bourg is going to do well when there is already an abundance of such facilities in all the local cities, and the increasing use of virtual and internet based systems will make 'real' conference events increasingly redundant.

I think its a sign of the desperation of the local politicians that some of these questions were barely raised at the presentation of the plan, except by Councillor Bocianowksi, to her credit. The SAS presentation offers no exit strategies or worse-case scenarios, only a rose-tinted view of increasing prosperity despite the multiple challenges faced by the tourist industry here (visitors to Les Arcs fell by 9,3% between 2009-2012), and in particular skiing which whether you like it or not is main motor of the local economy.

It is, I realise, easy to criticise a new project like this, and if it does go ahead I really hope it will succeed and not become a nightmarish drain on the town's finances. But I am pretty sure no council would have chosen to buy a site like this for redevelopment, rather it's been thrust upon as and something has to be done with it. Let's hope M. Giraudy's the man for the job!

You can see full details of the proposals here (in french but mainly pictures and diagrams):

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