Nantes' theme park economics at Machines de L'Ile

Machines de l'ile
Image caption The Heron will form part of a giant mechanical tree

It was a gamble, but in 2004 the City of Nantes in western France decided to take it. Using funds from regional government and from the European Union, it invested 10m euros (£8.4m; $13.3m) in Machines de L'Ile.

The idea was to create a theme park based around giant mechanical animals. Making their own parts, engineers and artists would build the huge contraptions in a converted warehouse.

Visitors would be able to watch the machines being constructed and ride on the completed ones.

The park would also be the anchor of a much larger plan to regenerate a run-down part of Nantes that had been in decay since the closure of the dockyards in 1987.

Pierre Orefice is one of the two creators of the Machines de L'Ile. He had years of experience in producing outdoor theatre and, perhaps more importantly, the confidence of the city mayor, who approved the investment.

Pierre and his partner in the project, Francois Delaroziere, were convinced the project would be a success if they could create a broad appeal.

"In the Disney and Asterix parks, the parents are spectators, they don't have the same emotion as their kids," Pierre said.

"We were sure there should not be separation from the world of children and adults. It was very important that a parent could enjoy the experience as much as the children."

Pricey pachyderm

Almost a decade later and the gamble seems to be paying off. The star attraction, a 12m-tall (39ft) elephant which stomps around the park spraying water, is a huge hit.

The park has seen visitor numbers grow, even through the financial crisis and this year expects to attract 500,000 customers.

Big companies are keen to be associated with the project. Power firm EDF and the bank, Credit Mutuel, are among the firms that provide 300,000 euros (£251,540; $400,380) a year in sponsorship.

But despite that income, the park does not cover its costs.

Operating a giant mechanical elephant is not cheap. It needs 2,000 litres of oil to keep it running smoothly and altogether costs Machines de L'Ile 200,000 euros a year.

The park itself had a budget last year of 3m euros and it paid for 80% of that with the city picking up the rest of the bill.

But local officials are happy with the investment. They argue that the project has created 50 highly skilled jobs in the workshop and another 60 in the gallery.

They also say that the tourist revenue outside the project more than compensates for the losses.

So they were happy to invest another 10m euros in the park's latest creation.

David Martineau works for the French statistics agency, Insee, in Nantes: "It was a crazy project, for sure. It was quite difficult to make people come with you on the project.

Image caption The 12m elephant needs 2,000 litres of oil to keep it running smoothly

"But you have to have faith that cultural activities can be an engine for growth in a city like Nantes.

"You can't really compete with tourism activities in other cities in France.

"You can't compete with Bordeaux, Lyon [for tourism], so it's a way of competing."

Cultural hub

This summer, Machines de L'Ile unveils its latest creation. The Carousel of Marine World is 25m tall and will have three levels of elaborate mechanical sea life, including a giant squid, flying fish and manta ray. It promises to be quite a sight.

Once again the regional government, the city and the European Union are helping to fund the park.

But Machines de L'Ile creator Pierre Orefice is not complacent about the future. He describes the business environment as "fragile" and feels the pressure of having to create new attractions ever year.

His theme park is part of a much larger regeneration of Nantes. Covering 337 hectares, it is one of the largest urban projects in Europe.

The city hopes that with projects like Machines de L'Ile, it can become a cultural hub in France. That will need private investors and more slices of government funding.

Patrice Guillotreau is an associate professor of economics and business at the University of Nantes: "Culture had a massive investment for the three last decades and this is very important as an appealing factor for the town, it makes it attractive for people."

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