Seaside town's 'identity crisis' as it tries to reinvent itself

Norman Wallis, owner of Southport Pleasureland
-Credit: (Image: Iain Watts/Liverpool Echo)

It's been a difficult start to the summer for seaside towns like Southport, as the wet and windy weather rages on.

But as two families made their way around Southport Pleaureland's miniature golf course on Wednesday, Norman Wallis was adamant this is only the beginning of a radical change for the town. Norman, a Sandgrounder born and bred, has five generations before him working in the leisure industry.

He has rebuilt Southport Pleasureland from the ground up after taking over the site on a one year rolling lease initially. But as Labour's battle bus, laden with the word "change", drove into Pleasureland's car park for a campaign stop, it showed how much change really is on the horizon for the coastal resort.

READ MORE: People are running out of hope in Merseyside's 'three hour town'

READ MORE: Troubled history of Southport Pier also shows its ability to survive

Norman, who has far from shied away from the struggles that the town has faced, said the weather is the biggest challenge Southport faces but explained how the Victorian's have "laid a blueprint" for the future of the town. While walking around the fairground, he told the ECHO: "Southport needs to know what it is - what it is, is entertainment, leisure and tourism.

"It's alright for people who say 'oh, it used to be better then' and certain aspects might have been better in the past but people forget about the bad bits. We've got to remember the past, learn from the past and build for the future."

Southport Pleasureland
Southport Pleasureland -Credit:Andrew Brown Media

He continued: "People like to reminisce about what things used to be like. It wasn't as good as this in the 70s."

One continued battle for all towns that look to attract visitors is people on social media and negative reviews. Norman, who prides himself on good reviews, said: "This year has been difficult but it's not just here, Blackpool has struggled. I speak to everybody, it's the same all over the country.

"I work with a company in Ireland and they said the whole country is flat as they wait to find out what happens with the election. It's not all to do with Southport but people only focus on their own little microcosm. I go everywhere, I speak to people from all over the place, all over the world.

"It's the circle of life and we will come out of this better and stronger. Look at what we're doing here. It's just a nice place to be and a place to make nice memories with your family."

This summer has proved to get off to a shaky start, with the rain and wind causing a dampener for the town, and the rest of the north west. The uncertainty has only been heightened with the closure of Southport Pier, which is yet to have a reopening date, and the lack of theatre and convention space which often brings thousands of people to the town every year.

Speaking to the ECHO, one bar owner said it is hard to plan for the future with each year proving different to the last, citing the Covid-19 pandemic and the unpredictable nature of the British weather. James Breen, of Sacre Bleu on Seabank Road, said he has seen a dip in visitors this year compared to last year, but cited the cost of living crisis which has hit the pockets of both locals and tourists.

He said: "It's been called a three hour town, I don't think it is but I don't think it's far off. I think some people have shortened their stay here but they were initially only coming for four or five hours anyway, and they're not coming for maybe three hours.

"People who only come for a day are still coming here, just maybe for an hour or two less. The hotels are still selling out and we're still seeing new faces come through the door."

He continued: "I was worried last year, the winter was tough, but we were all in the same boat. It's hard but people just don't have as much money to spend and the weather is hitting us hard. Everywhere is the same."

Southport Air Show
James Breen, owner of Sacre Bleu in Southport

Looking to the future, there are many reasons to be optimistic for the summer ahead. The Southport Air Show has been bought forward two months, expected to begin as temperatures are predicted to rise, according to the Met Office.

Businesses also hope the conclusion of the General Election this week will see people return to normality after weeks of uncertainty. James is one business owner who massively sees the benefit of the Southport Air Show.

He said: "The Air Show is great, everyone has to travel through the town onto the front to see it and people often stop outside for a drink. It's great for the town."

Despite the challenges the town faces, the hospitality sector has benefitted from a number of new arrivals in recent months. Bars and restaurants have popped up throughout the town including the recent extension of The Grand opening and Mavericks bar joining Lord Street last year along with Casablanca. The Peaky Blinders has also rebranded into Sinclair's and a flurry of other venues have opened their doors throughout the town.

In the words of Southport Pleasureland owner Norman: "I've spent millions of pounds here, I'm not doing that because I don't think it's going to work."

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