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£300m Afan Valley adventure resort boss ‘fully committed’ to deliver by 2026

23 Nov 2022 8 minute read
Artist’s impression of the layout of Wildfox Resort, in the Afan Valley. Picture: Powell Dobson Architects. Inset: Martin Bellamy, Wildfox Resorts Afan Valley Ltd and Salamanca Group director (image by Piranha Photography).

Richard Youle, Local Democracy Reporter

The man leading an adventure resort project which could transform a South Wales valley has outlined his expectations for the next three years as the scheme is built.

Martin Bellamy said he was fully committed to delivering Wildfox Resort in the Afan Valley notwithstanding the current “massively challenging” economic climate.

Gaining reserved matters, or detailed, planning approval from Neath Port Talbot Council earlier this month was, he said, a very significant step.

The resort project has a team of experts, a website, its own company – incorporated in 2021 – awareness locally and further afield, and a range of planning and technical reports that will shape its progress its journey from drawing board to reality on 132 hectares of land near Croeserw and Cymmer.

At the same time inflation is galloping, the UK looks to be sliding into recession, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has cast a pall over Europe.

“We are definitely operating within a massively challenging economic climate,” said Mr Bellamy, who is a director of Wildfox Resorts Afan Valley Ltd and merchant banking firm Salamanca Group, which is taking the project forward.

“We are not thinking it is going to be impossible – if anything, it focuses the mind. By and large, because of economic cycles, you are either building in a strong market or slightly weaker market and you hope when you open you are in a better market.”

He added: “Our aspiration is to be open by the summer of 2026.”

He said Salamanca Group had led projects including new shopping centres, ports, office blocks and residential units. “We don’t take any projects lightly,” he said.

“The process of effective procurement, sound management and logical business decisions need to be applied whatever economic environment you are in.”

£300m cost

The expected £250 million cost of the resort, said Mr Bellamy, was now more likely to be £300 million.

“The finance is complicated, it’s multi-faceted – it may well involve public and private sector participation, but it’s too early to give any specifics on that,” he said.

Mr Bellamy stressed that no resort buildings would be sold to investors – and that ultimately the only way to convince “naysayers” was to get the project built and its doors open.

Wildfox Resort will have 570 lodges, a hotel, climbing and bouldering centre, spa, central plaza, restaurants, an indoor water park with an E-sports lounge, car parks and a series of mountain bike trails – all set within a wider area of mountain biking and hiking in the Afan Valley.

“It is the first adventure resort in the UK,” said Mr Bellamy, who hopes longer term to build two similar resorts in the UK. “We have spent a lot of time thinking about what activities we are trying to offer, and what people want.”

He likened the Wildfox Resort concept to “the new skiing” – a multi-activity holiday which also provided high quality accommodation, food and drink.

Mr Bellamy said he expected it to appeal to a broad clientele, geographical area and age range.

“It’s really going to suit families who like a bit of adventure and outdoors and the idea of staying in really nice lodges,” he said.

”We think demand for this type of experience is really strong.”

Asked if he was confident that it wouldn’t overwhelm the landscape, he replied: “The immediate answer is yes, we are confident. It has a very considered design, very natural colours, materials. The design specifics are such that it complements the natural landscape.

“We want people to have a feeling of nature, natural beauty and something built with the environment very much in mind.”

The planning report which went before the council’s planning committee said the dark lodges with their green roofs would make them “almost invisible” in the landscape, and that the resort’s buildings were sufficiently distant from neighbouring houses.

The planning department, though, would like the lodges to generate some of their own energy and be as carbon neutral as possible.

“We are very, very focused on sustainability,” said Mr Bellamy.

This could mean a mix of solar generation, he said, air source heat pumps and possibly direct purchasing of electricity from nearby wind farms.

1,000 jobs

The resort is expected to employ some 1,000 staff.

“Pretty much all of the workforce needs to be from the local area, although I’d caveat by saying there will be some people who are attracted to work at Wildfox Resort and therefore move to the area,” said Mr Bellamy.

“That provides both a challenge and an opportunity. We need to think about the way we train our staff, and we need to engage with local educational institutions. We are building those relationships.”

Mr Bellamy said his team has also had meetings with the council’s economic development team, and that a very good relationship had been built with the authority.

He said the project team would be refining the resort’s design and finalising the procurement process, with the site prepared for construction next spring.

“Our preferred option is to procure locally – that has not changed,” he said. There were likely to be multiple construction packages, he added, including a significant one for the new roads and services within the resort.

“We have done enough projects in the past to know the type of contractors (required),” he said.

People living and working in nearby Croeserw have expressed optimism at Wildfox Resort although there was also a feeling of wait and see, given that previous iterations of the proposed adventure park hadn’t materialised.

‘Making of area’

Jeff Payne, 69, said he believed the resort could be the making of the area if it was managed correctly.

He said: “Just look at the scenery and views around you, it’s fantastic up here in this part of Wales especially in the summertime, and we’re convinced the area is perfect for this kind of development.

“There could be a lot of jobs created from the Wildfox site and I’m sure that local shop keepers and suppliers will thrive when it’s built as long as it is run properly, and by genuine people.”

Croeserw Community Centre worker Lisa Evans, 55, said she hoped the whole of Neath Port Talbot would benefit.

“I think it will be wonderful for the valleys, creating lots of jobs for local people and hopefully fetching a lot of tourists into the valleys as well,” she said.

“It won’t just be the resort either as there’s lots of other places for them to visit from here, such as Aberavon beach and Margam Park, so it could really link these places together and encourage people to take more notice of the Neath Port Talbot area as a whole.

“Obviously there will be a big construction process but we will have to put up with it to achieve what comes after, and I’m sure it will be worth it in the end. There are definitely some fears from locals even now that it won’t go ahead as it is a project that has been discussed for a long time, but I think we have to stay positive.”

Barbara Trahar, of Croeserw, said: “We’re looking at more jobs, and we’re looking at better infrastructure. This was another thing we were concerned about in that if you have 3,000 people per week in there travelling back and forth, the infrastructure has got to be there to support it, so the roads will have to be upgraded which is going to be a winner for us all round.”

Mr Bellamy said relationships with local communities and businesses as well as the council were crucial. “We can’t do this on our own,” he said. “It has to be a team effort.”

He added: “To deliver a project of this magnitude, all of the steps are important, and achieving reserved matters (approval) is no mean feat. There are very important steps ahead of us.”

Since October 2021 when Mr Bellamy last spoke to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, much thought, he said, had gone into the project’s ambition and unique selling points.

“The big difference between now and 12 months ago is that we feel very confident and at peace with ourselves that we have got the formula right,” he said.

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