Rally bosses call for Kelso shutdown

KELSO traders were due to be canvassed last night on a proposal from organisers of the world-famous Jim Clark Rally who want to look at a controversial closing of the centre of the town for the whole three days of future events.

This year’s event will see the 41st staging of the Jim Clark Rally and will be run over the closed roads of Berwickshire on the spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May.

The event forms round four of the seven-event Dulux Trade MSA British Rally Championship for 2011, and will see the return, after a year’s absence, of the World Rally Cars of the Citroen Irish Tarmac Rally Championship. While being staged on Berwickshire roads, the event will again make use of Kelso Racecourse for a maintenance and headquarters area.

Last year’s event saw the start and finish in Duns. In the past, however, the centre of Kelso has also hosted these elements of the popular rally which attracts worldwide media coverage.

Rally organisers have met with representatives of Kelso Community Council and say that while they still had a shred of hope this year’s event could be centred on Kelso, it was looking increasingly unlikely that there was enough time left to clinch a deal to allow that and efforts are expected to now focus on getting an agreement in place for the 2012 meeting.

Local community councillors discussed the possibility of the middle of the town being sealed off to other traffic for more than three days at their January meeting last week.

Councillor Colin McGrath, who met recently with rally manager Colin Pagan, confirmed that organisers were keen to utilise the centre of Kelso, and as well as wanting exclusive use of the town square for the three days, also wanted exclusive use of the car parks at the Knowes and the Tait Hall.

However, vice-chairman John Bassett – standing in for Provost Fiona Scott – voiced serious reservations, saying that such a long shutdown of the centre of the town on the spring bank holiday weekend would cause traffic problems.

“The problem is when the new traffic management system goes in, this rally proposal could cause complete chaos. I can pretty much guarantee what the traders are going to say if people are not able to get into the town,” he told fellow councillors.

Councillor Harry Tomcyzk, who also met with rally organisers last year, felt it was a great idea for the centre of the town to have a role in the event, but had doubts it was practical to close of the town centre for so many days. He said: “My concern is that they are suggesting using the whole of the centre of the town from the Thursday through to the end on the Sunday. I think I would have reservations from that point of view.

“I believe the same weekend is due to see the big scooter rally as well, which brings several thousand people into Kelso. I would have thought the rally on top of this was overkill.

“And I’m not sure if residents around the Knowes and Tait Hall car parks would really appreciate having three days of cars revving their engines right on their doorsteps.”

Local chamber of trade chairman, Steve Osbourne, said the rally brought very valuable national media exposure and felt anything that brought increased trade to Kelso was a good thing.

“Certain events benefit certain areas of our membership more than others,” he explained. “But I am afraid I can’t give you the chamber of trade’s official view without speaking to our committee first,” he added. The issue was on the agenda for last night’s traders’ meeting.

Scottish Borders councillor Alasdair Hutton also reminded members that the local farmers’ market set up its stalls on the fourth Saturday of each month - in May that was scheduled to be the same weekend as the rally. The community council agreed to defer making a decision on the issue until the next meeting in order to hear an official point of view from the chamber of trade.

Mr Pagan confirmed to TheSouthern it was highly unlikely there was now enough time to reach such a deal for exclusive use of the town square this year, adding: “But we are under pressure from major championships to improve our present base and improve the social atmosphere. We are always under pressure from other championships and sponsors.”

Mr Pagan would not be drawn on whether that might one day see the event being lost to the Borders altogether, with only a token prescence in Berwickshire as a tribute to the late grand prix racing driver, Jim Clark, after whom the event is named.

But Councillor McGrath said organisers had informed him that interested parties in Edinburgh were keen to see the event switched to the capital.

“It would be a great loss for tourism to both Kelso and the Borders if that were to happen,” he told TheSouthern this week.

“Our small committee that has looked at this feels using the middle of Kelso for one or two days, linked in with the racecourse to expand it to a four-day event for the town would be the best option.

“We don’t want to let this event end up going up the road to Edinburgh.”