Let’s view Tour of Britain miss as an opportunity for our city

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

Tour of Britain riders in Hanley.

I wonder how many taxpayers in Stoke-on-Trent will be genuinely disappointed that the Tour of Britain isn’t coming to the Potteries this year.

The cycle race’s organisers have decided against returning to the city again and instead will host a charity ride for amateurs here in the Six Towns on October 5.

That means we won’t see the likes of Tour de France winner and Olympic gold medalist Sir Bradley Wiggins in Hanley alongside dozens of other pro riders.

To be honest, cycling isn’t my bag. A few of my friends – even some of my colleagues – have taken to two wheels since the London Olympics and I do appreciate the health benefits for them and their kids. All that wind-in-your-hair, outdoors business sounds good.

But as a spectacle, standing for several hours waiting to catch a glimpse of 30-odd blokes who you can’t name whizz past in a nanosecond isn’t my idea of good day out.

I remember being in Hanley on a drizzly afternoon a couple of years ago when The Tour came to town and recall the paved area outside the old Woolies store being cordoned off.

I’m being generous when I say there were perhaps a couple of hundred spectators within sight of Sir Stan’s statue and most people, like me, just seemed frustrated that the crash barriers meant they couldn’t cross the street to get to Marks & Sparks.

I confess I would never consider tuning in to ITV4 or whatever channel The Tour of Britain is broadcast on to catch up with the action – even if for one day you might spot the odd Potteries landmark in the background.

It’s not that I don’t applaud the city council for trying to attract big events to Stoke-on-Trent. I guess cycling as a sport is just a bit niche for me.

Given the viewing figures the Tour of Britain receives, however, I don’t believe I’m alone.

Yes, cycle nerds, cycle shop owners and a few traders in Hanley may have had a good day but I’m not sure hosting the race justified the £820,000 of taxpayers’ money spent since 2008 and all the associated mither of road closures.

Senior councillors have confirmed they did want the Tour of Britain here this year and would like to see it return soon.

This means there must be a pot of money that would have been spent on the race in 2014 – perhaps £120,000 plus – going spare.

That being the case why don’t we look to organise some other events which will help to raise the city’s profile and boost the economy?

For example, given the fact that we are the undisputed darts capital of the world and have been for more than a decade, I’ve always wondered why Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t look to stage a tournament.

If it’s because some people are a bit sniffy about it not being a proper ‘sport’ then I suggest they get over themselves and pop in to a few pubs across the Potteries to see how healthy local leagues are.

Darts is hugely popular – that’s why it’s broadcast on Sky TV – and in Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor, Adrian ‘Jackpot’ Lewis and Andy ‘The Hammer’ Hamilton, we have three home-grown ambassadors who would themselves be a big draw. We could stage it at the King’s Hall in Stoke or the Victoria Hall in Hanley over a weekend.

We’ve also got a couple of world class pool players living locally so perhaps that’s another sport we can look to in order to raise our profile.

Of course, events which bring people into the city and get them spending money in shops, pubs and restaurants don’t necessarily have to be sports-related.

Take the recent Robbie Williams fans’ festival, tourist trail and exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, for example. They cost a few thousand pounds to stage but the benefits were huge in terms of helping local businesses, attracting visitors and boosting the city’s profile.

Let’s not forget that neighbouring towns like Stone and Leek, which have much smaller populations, stage hugely successful food and drink and arts festivals, respectively.

Meanwhile, Newcastle is about to put on its jazz and blues festival.

Here in Stoke-on-Trent we struggled to get a few camels up Hanley for the Christmas lights switch-on. What’s all that about?

We should have more farmers’ markets, continental markets or perhaps stage a huge garden and local produce show which highlights the best our farmers, bakers and brewers have to offer.

Or how about an annual Spitfire Day here in Stoke-on-Trent, based around trying to raise funds to restore our own RW 388 in the Potteries Museum – complete with wartime music, re-enactors in period costume, military vehicles and a fly-past?

We are a big enough city to be staging a major public event once a month and they could be shared around our Six Towns so that each one enjoys the economic boost – rather than just Hanley being the beneficiary.

When you think about it, we are only limited by our imaginations.

I’m pretty sure all of the above could be staged for less than the £120,000 or more it cost us to host the Tour of Britain each year – and certainly a lot less than the minimum £250,000 of taxpayers’ money we are spending on a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show.

There is simply no need to put all our eggs into a couple of baskets.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

Advertisements

Inspiring partnership celebrates city’s rich sporting heritage

Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi at the Sports Awards 2012.

Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Mike Sassi at the Sports Awards 2012.

It’s another big week for our city, following the hugely popular visit of HRH Prince Charles to the Mother Town a few days ago.

On Thursday evening an array of stars from the world of sport will turn out at the Kings Hall in Stoke to pay homage to individuals who are perhaps less well-known but nonetheless equally deserving of praise.

The guest of honour will be Sally Gunnell OBE – our compere for the 38th year of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality Awards.

The gold medal-winning Olympian follows in the footsteps of sporting luminaries such as Lord Sebastian Coe, James Cracknell OBE, Dave Moorcroft OBE and Jonathan Edwards CBE who have all graced the event in recent years.

Joining Sally will be a veritable who’s who of home-grown sporting legends who each year give up their time to make the event more memorable for those in attendance.

These include World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks OBE, Paralympic equestrian hero Lee Pearson OBE, Olympic gold medal-winning hockey player Imran Sherwani, former England wicket keeper Bob Taylor MBE, current England cricket star Danielle Wyatt and football pundit Mark Bright, to name but a few.

They’ll be rubbing shoulders on the red carpet with Potteries football royalty like John Rudge and Micky Adams.

The list goes on…

It really is a night to reflect on Stoke-on-Trent’s rich sporting history and our celebrity guests add a touch of glamour to what is a very prestigious occasion.

We’ll be handing out the Sir Stanley Matthews Potteries Footballer of the Year Awards to a Stoke City and Port Vale player and inducting two more famous faces into the Civic Sporting Hall of Fame.

But the real focus on Thursday’s event is on the achievements, endeavour and selflessness of individuals and teams who may never hit the big time or make national headlines.

That said, their contribution to sport in our patch is exceptional and well worth celebrating.

Indeed, this is why in 1975 councillor Tom Brennan came up with the idea of a civic event, championed by The Sentinel, to pay homage to the unsung heroes and heroines of local sport.

The City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards has come along way since those early days when a few dozen people attended a buffet and prize giving.

It’s now a black tie event for more than 300 guests with video tributes to all shortlisted nominees which you’ll be able to view on The Sentinel’s website on Friday morning.

But the ethos of the awards remains the same: To honour the local footballers, cricketers, rugby players, martial artists, cyclists, coaches, officials and competitors across a range of sports and sporting disciplines.

They make all the wet Sunday mornings, the endless training sessions, the fund-raising and administrative nightmares worthwhile.

Most of those who we will be honouring on Thursday will not be household names but, through their efforts, they touch the lives of thousands of people in the Potteries.

Their walk on to the freshly-painted stage, accompanied by music and the warm applause of a packed Kings Hall to receive their trophy from a celebrity and have their photograph taken, may only take a few minutes.

But it will hopefully create a memory that will last a lifetime and we will chronicle it for them.

I think there must, sadly, be a perception among some city councillors that journalists at The Sentinel spend all their time thinking up negative stories about them and the local authority.

This is presumably one of the reasons why communications gurus come and go with such regularity and there seems to be a constant appetite for reviewing the council’s press and PR strategies.

However, the truth is somewhat different to the perception of some elected members.

The vast majority of council-related stories carried by this newspaper are positive or neutral and that’s a fact.

What’s more, Thursday night proves that our partnership activities with the authority are a real success – genuinely aspirational and important events for the city as a whole.

Along with The Sentinel Business Awards, the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality is a key event in the city’s calendar with a long and distinguished history.

Long may it continue to reward and inspire.

*Follow @SentinelStaffs on Twitter for updates on Thursday night as the winners are announced. Full coverage of the event in Friday’s Sentinel and online.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

The final flight of Spitfire RW 388 – a piece of our city’s heritage

We Stokies have fond memories of 1986 because of the National Garden Festival which transformed a huge area of derelict land in the heart of the Potteries.

But it was also the year that an iconic piece of our heritage was unveiled at its new home after 20-odd years in a ‘greenhouse’.

The city’s Mark XVI Spitfire, RW 388, was gifted to the people of Stoke-on-Trent by the RAF in 1972 as an acknowledgment that Spitfire designer Reginald Mitchell had been born in the city and received all of his education here.

Since that time it had been on display inside a huge glass hangar on Bethesda Street where generations of children – including me – gawped at its magnificence.

But on October 27, 1985, under cover of darkness RW 388 was carefully winched out of its glass hangar before being carried at lamppost height to the foot of Unity House where one of the largest cranes in the country took over the operation.

It soared over the museum at around 8.30am before being eased into blocks inside the courtyard of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery so that construction work could begin on a purpose-built gallery to house the classic fighter aircraft.

The cost of the project, to transfer the plane and create its new home ahead of the public opening of the gallery in the Spring of 1986, was put at around £89,000.

However the city’s taxpayers only had to find £40,000 as the remainder was covered by grants.
RW 388 never actually saw combat during the Second World War.

It was built in 1945 at Castle Bromwich and was first used as a training aircraft and then later for towing targets so that Royal Navy ships could practice accurately aiming their guns.

After that she was used as part of a gate display at two RAF bases – RAF Benson and RAF Andover.

This exposure to the elements for an aircraft only build to last a few years goes some way to explaining the deterioration of RW 388 as it approaches its 68th birthday.

Having said that, the city’s Spitfire is unusual in that it is not your typical mixed bag for an aircraft of its age.

It is estimated that around 85 per cent of RW 388 is original – just as it was when it rolled off the production line in Birmingham all those years ago.

That being the case, the city’s Spitfire is rather special – and remains a major attraction at a venue which also boasts the world-renowned Staffordshire Hoard and a fabulous collection of locally-made ceramics.

Earlier this year a campaign was launched to raise tens of thousands of pounds to conserve and ultimately restore RW 388 to pristine condition.

This will involve a major fund-raising event at the King’s Hall in Stoke on Friday, October 19, which will be compered by yours truly.

It is a project I am very proud to be associated with – one which will help to preserve an important piece of our heritage.

That the man who designed the aircraft which helped to turn the tide of the Battle of Britain came from our neck of the woods is something we should continue to celebrate – even as the generation which remembers those dark days leaves us.

*Anyone wishing to make a donation to the fund should visit: http://www.uk.virginmoneygiving.com/team/spitfire or call 01782 232502.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

King’s Hall deserves more chances to shine

Last week 350 guests, resplendent in their finery, attended the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
Having organised the event, I’m bound to say it was a good do – and it was.
A joint venture between this newspaper and the city council, it’s a classic public/private partnership.
The awards night enables Stoke-on-Trent to showcase the very best of its sporting talent and reward all the unsung heroes – the grassroots coaches and volunteers which nurture that ability.
An olympic gold medal-winner rubbed shoulders with a World Cup-winning footballer, former England cricketers, Potteries football icons, MPs and a host of civic dignitaries.
Black tie and evening wear for ladies, read the invitation, and I have to say we all scrubbed up well.
At a time of austerity there will be those who will question the merit of such events – and the cost.
But the truth is that if we aspire to be a city worth the name then we have to demonstrate that we can stage events which have that ‘wow factor’ and which make visitors sit up and take notice.
What made this year’s awards ceremony rather special was the venue which hosted it.
The King’s Hall in Stoke is a real architectural gem and, following its interior makeover a couple of years ago, the grand old lady really sparkles on nights such as last Thursday.
Aside from having wonderful acoustics, the hall itself is a magnificent visual treat – with its ornate plasterwork, chandeliers and imposing stage with its choir stalls and voluminuous red drapes.
Having compèred several events there myself I can tell you that the King’s Hall is the perfect venue for everything from glitzy awards ceremonies to veterans’ celebrations – from prayer breakfasts to good, old-fashioned discos.
What a shame it is then that this wonderful asset is so under-used.
Indeed, I wonder how many people in our city ever have cause to visit the King’s Hall – particularly anyone under the age of 30.
At present, the King’s Hall makes do with election counts, the odd wedding and occasional use by specific interest groups.
Only half a dozen times a year does the venue actually come alive with music, entertainment and genuine celebration which embraces all sections of our community.
If the King’s Hall was in another city I dare say it would be playing host to at least a couple of decent gigs every week.
I won’t try to claim this as my idea, because it wasn’t, but why don’t we have a music promoter touting the venue around for bands?
Let’s face it, Stoke is hardly a hive of activity after 7pm.
Just think of the potential boost to the town’s economy – to shops, bars, cafe’s and pubs – if 2,000 people were packing out the King’s Hall a couple of times a week to see their favourite musicians, singers or comedians.
It wouldn’t take much. The venue is almost ready – aside from a modest investment backstage to create some decent dressing rooms.
This may all seem like pie in the sky at a time when leisure facilities are being closed as part of local authority cutbacks but I believe the King’s Hall is different.
Attached to the council’s Civic Headquarters, this venue will continue to host events irrespective of the financial climate.
The question is: can we maximise its potential and that all of all the other dormant and under-used civic assets across the city?
Forget Hanley: it already has a Cultural Quarter and is finally undergoing the kind of bread-and-butter regeneration which turn it into a thriving city centre.
However, to use a marketing concept, I believe that it is vital that the other five towns each finds its own unique selling point (USP).
Aside from boasting a Minster church, it strikes me that the King’s Hall is Stoke’s USP and much more should therefore be done to promote it.
Do you think more use should be made of the King’s Hall and other civic assets?