‘How can you regenerate an area by building a Disneyland-style bubble in it and not letting people get out and explore the area? They may as well have built the Olympic Park on the moon – and I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way,’ says Lance Forman, chief executive of H Forman & Son.
‘My overriding impression of the International Olympic Committee is it is a private club for members and sponsors, going around looking after themselves and putting on a circus. It goes around destroying cities, playing on their national pride, but at what cost?’
H Forman & Son is a salmon smoking business based in Hackney Wick's Fish Island. Its complex, which includes a smoking factory, restaurant and gallery space, was, according to Mr Forman, 'the closest a commercial building has ever been to an Olympic Stadium'. It sounded like a dream come true. During the Games, Lance Forman should have been fighting off business with a stick.
‘Financially it was a huge disaster,’ says the family business owner.
Forman is not alone. A study by AXA Insurance has found only 2% of the small businesses polled by the insurance giant had seen positive effects in the year since the Games. A mere 15% felt the Olympics had been positive for business and only 13% thought it had been positive during and after the Games. Despite AXA’s press team spinning the study with relentless positivity, (would you believe the pitiful amount of positive sentiment expressed this year is three times the amount that was expressed by businesses last year), it certainly isn’t good news for the London Legacy Development Corporation.
‘Jeremy Hunt, Seb Coe and various Olympic committees insisted the London Olympics were about regeneration, but going by the way they behaved, they had no interest in east London at all,’ says Forman.
Admittedly, Forman has been through the mill. In 1998, his factory was gutted by a fire, and shortly after its refurbishment in 2000, it was destroyed by a flood. Settled in his third factory in as many years for just 12 months (aided by funding from the London Development Agency), Forman read in a newspaper that the Olympic Park was to be built in the same spot as his business. He and 250 other firms were to be displaced.
‘The area was a thriving hub of manufacturing, but it was portrayed by Tessa Jowell and pals as a derelict wasteland,’ he tells MT.
What followed was an incredibly painful government compulsory purchase order (CPO) process, which cost many Hackney Wick manufacturing businesses dearly.
‘Around 75 of the 250 closed down, and many couldn’t get compensation,’ says Forman.
Forman’s salmon smoking business, which claims to be the oldest in the UK, managed to come out of the CPO process in tact. Forman managed to rebuild his premises not far from its original position: he even added some of his own cash to the compensation pot to create a mammoth venue, its design resembling a huge salmon, on the banks of the river Lee. To observers, it looked like a major coup.
H Forman & Son Image: Flickr Diamond Geezer
‘I would say we benefited and suffered,’ he tells MT. ‘Once the Olympic Park started going up, we realized just how close we were going to be, so we decided to invest in creating a venue space and restaurant.
‘In the two years leading up to the Olympics, we held 80% of the Olympic authorities’ and sponsors’ events – and we did quite well out of it. People kept telling us how our venue would be a goldmine during the Games.
'Having lost a lot of ground with our core business while we had been fighting for survival, we thought, "let’s invest in the Olympics, and maybe those three weeks will pay back all we’ve lost".’
They didn’t. Forman ploughed ‘hundreds of thousands of pounds’ into developing a hospitality Mecca in his salmon smoking factory, replete with 40 palm trees from Italy and a tiki yacht. One of Simon Cowell's team apparently dubbed it ‘San TropE3’ and Forman marketed the area as Fish Island Riviera. But despite his creation of a dream Olympic venue, the punters didn't turn up.
Fish Island Riviera
‘The corporate clients we had anticipated didn’t come – they were afraid of the draconian rules LOCOG had in place around the use of the word ‘Olympics’ – they asked, "how can we send invites to our clients when we can’t write ‘Olympics’?"
‘We decided to work on attracting the public, but when people were heading towards the western gates of the Park towards us, they were shouted at by people with megaphones telling them to go the other way, back to Stratford. We even tried putting up signs on lampposts but they pulled them down.’
With his enthusiastic investment having failed, Forman was faced with building his original business back up to where it had been. But surely something good must have come from the whole saga?
‘The Olympics has been a real roller coaster, from having our survival threatened, turning it into a positive and then blowing it all on investment,’ says Forman.
‘We have had positive support because of the media publicity. People are more aware of our brand now, and we’re doing more business with big players such as Waitrose. But our smaller clients now think we’re bigger than we actually are and a few have said they’d rather deal with a smaller company,’ he explains.
And what of Hackney Wick? The area is a patchwork quilt of industrial infrastructure, sewn in with creativity. Artists’ communities have grown among the factories and to outsiders, the area appears punctuated with the icons of gentrification: coffee shops selling trendy ‘flat whites’ and breweries serving posh pizzas. Isn’t this a good thing?
‘There’s lots of construction going on in the Park, new cafes and a thriving artists’ community, so there is a lot of potential there, if cost were not a consideration and the regeneration question was set aside, there is no question, this was a spectacular spectator event for our city,' says Forman.
‘But they spent £10bn on the Olympics and that money could have gone a lot further if they behaved differently. The positive things happening in this area were happening anyway – if anything, the Olympics only slowed them down.’
A bad review for a global event grounded in speed and agility. But with the Olympic Park slowly opening its grounds to the public once more and the megaphones well and truly gone, with any luck Forman's new complex will pay off in the long-term and he'll be grateful it's not on the moon after all.
|Forman's Olympics in figures|
£100 - £200k - Amount made in corporate events prior to the Games
'High six figures' - Amount invested in the venue top get ready for the Games
1 - Number of corporate clients resident at Forman's for the duration of the Games
1,000 - Number of visitors needed each day of the Games to break even
750 - Average number of visitors per day
£150 per head - Cost of corporate hospitality gourmet lunch (with unlimited bubbly and free access to Fish Island Riviera)
100m - Distance from Olympic Stadium to H Forman and Sons ('Under ten seconds if you're Usain Bolt' - Lance Forman)