Plans for new surf park would transform Roscommon tourism

I have been writing here for the last three weeks about the Government’s Just Transition Fund and the tens of thousands of euro now being distributed for a plethora of different plans, feasibility studies on future economic developments for the area and a handful of pretty much immediate job creation projects on the Roscommon-Longford-Westmeath borders.

  Some of the projects announced last year included an exciting new plan for a Bord na Mona transport museum in Cloontuskert, €1 million for the Lanesboro Food Hub and €1 million for the second phase of the Lough Ree Distillery in Lanesborough, as well as €977,500 for the Ballyforan Greenway Loop down beside the old Shannonbridge power station.

  By far and away the most innovative of all the proposals on the table at the moment has to be the one advertised on the eTenders website in the last month or so by way of an application for people to tender to carry out a major feasibility study on what is being loosely called ‘a giant wave park’ for the Shannonside town.

  This is a hugely exciting project and one that really deserves serious consideration. Longford County Council is actually seeking tenders to enable the appointment of a lead consultant and multi-disciplinary team to undertake a 3-phase design study to explore the potential of developing Ireland’s first artificial surf wave centre powered by renewable energy in the vicinity of Lanesborough.

  The model for this spectacular idea is based on a very successful project already running at Snowdonia in Wales and it’s a 5-star tourism project of world tourism attraction status. Adventure Parc Snowdonia is actually the world-first inland surf lagoon and the only guaranteed surf break in the UK. It’s set against a backdrop of the beautiful forests and mountains of Snowdonia, and the very clever technology used delivers a variety of wave profiles, so absolute beginners can surf safely alongside the professionals. The expert surf tuition available, and reliable waves make this the ideal, family-friendly training arena and it’s already attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to a part of north Wales that really needed it – after the demise of the coal mining operations in that general region. Are you beginning to see the obvious connection here?

  Longford County Council has secured the funding under the Just Transition process for to carry out the feasibility study, business case and potential operator engagement advertised on eTenders for what they are hoping will be Ireland’s first artificial surf wave centre – even if the project is fraught with possible difficulties. The intention is for the centre to be a sustainable visitor attraction, powered by renewable energy, and contributing to the local and regional economy by way of hundreds of thousands of people of all ages visiting all year around – even when there is not as much of a smell of a wave for surfing let along a decent spray to be seen in places like Strandhill and Lahinch.

  The technology behind the project is very efficient too. A wavefoil, which resembles a snowplough, shuttles back and forth along a central underwater track that runs the length of the base of the 300m lagoon in the park. As the machinery moves back and forth, it will generate a huge barrelling wave on each side of the track. Try and picture it for yourself – the water being shovelled like snow up and down the full length of a football pitch, thereby creating some serious surfing conditions on the top, and all the time, controllable in scale.

  The eTender published by Longford County Council last month is verging on the ‘therapeutic’ in its approach to selling the idea: “The concerns over safety allied to a desire for health and wellness means more visitors are seeking to engage with the outdoors. Lanesborough-Ballyleague is well placed to build on this as an opportunity with recent and planned investment in green and blue infrastructure and the proximity of the River Shannon, Lough Ree and the wider Mount Dillon Bog complex”.

  The tender writer really wants us to believe this is the future for outdoor recreation and who are we to disagree? “While Center Parcs appeals mainly to families, a surf centre would have the potential to appeal to older teenagers and younger, unconstrained adults”, the tender states (put me down there as an ‘unconstrained adult please!). “These also have the tendency to be interested in conservation, sustainability and green issues. Development of Ireland’s first artificial surf wave centre powered by renewable energy would be a highly innovative and contextualise it within a rewilding, sustainable biosphere and, of course, examples of similar attractions that have leveraged the local natural environment and provided innovative and fresh thinking include Adventure Parc, Snowdonia in North Wales and The Wave near Bristol”.

  It all makes for really exciting reading and, if it can be pulled off, I am sure it would indeed change the face of the Shannonside towns of Ballyleague and Lanesborough, but what are the obstacles to be overcome – and where are they starting with the project? It is going to fall to the successful tenderer for this study to not only carry out focussed research and a scoping exercise on the potential for to develop Ireland’s first artificial surf wave centre powered by renewable energy but then go and help identify the factors associated with success and failures encountered in similar projects developed internationally. The feasibility will have to address the market, financial and operational feasibility of the surf wave centre and then go and identify three potential sites and consider the suitability of each in terms of access, environment and against several key characteristics.

  This is undoubtedly probably going to be the toughest element of the work. I know there is a clear focus on renewable energy in the stated brief when it comes to powering the new park but, doing it all in a eco-friendly style will be challenging and in an area that already enjoys special status as a region of environmental importance when it comes to flora and fauna. As if the job was not tough enough, the winning contractor will also be tasked with identifying and engaging with several potential operators of the new proposed park and putting a plan in place for its successful construction and operation.

  Paying for the new project will also be a challenge. It is clearly envisaged that the capital cost of putting this incredible facility in place with its renewable energy source could be sourced from the new European Commission Just Transition Fund, with the second part coming down the line in the next ten years with matching funds required – and lots of them too. Depending on the scale of the park, it could cost anything up thirty million euro to build, but please don’t let put you off. Its return in tourism terms is also staggering, and has the potential to turn a very barren wasteland into an eco-friendly fabulous place to live and work. And if you still don’t believe it’s possible – then just take a look at the Centre Parcs model and see what they have already done on a similar, if not larger, investment scale!

  Last but by no means least in my trawl through the Just Transition Fund projects is the Lough Ree Distillery Phase 2 project put up by Blacksmith Ventures Limited – otherwise known as the Clancy family in Lanesborough. These are hard-working local people who know their whiskeys and gins, and they have already said that they hope to be able to break ground on the new distillery and visitors centre soon, thanks to JTF funding of up to one million euro.

  Lough Ree Distillery began producing their first drink in October of 2018 and has made a good success of their product lines to date. This new distillery will give their hometown the boost it so badly needs, with the visitor centre attraction boosting local spending. We all are looking forward to seeing the bulldozers on site shortly to get the fabulous new distillery and visitor centre underway.

  When you add Lough Ree Destillery to the newly extended Strokestown Park House, the bigger and better Lough Ree Access For All passenger boat (mark two), the Corlea bog road visitor centre, the mighty new wilderness park, and the incredible surf park project, you begin to see the scale of what really is possible by way of economic regeneration in this region. Everybody knows it could take decades of course, and some of these projects will never see the light of day, but we all must start somewhere. Here’s hoping the best of these JTF projects will stand up, achieve investor support, and help create lots of jobs in the years to come.