March 30, 1996

Sheriff of Nottingham fumes as business leaders seek new image

[Robin Hood statue]

Caption: A vistor to Nottingham, central England reaches out to touch the statue of famed outlaw Robin Hood. Business and some civic leaders want a new image for Nottingham. A survey of how this city looks to people from the outside revealed that there's Robin Hood and not much else.

NOTTINGHAM, England: Like the gentry of old Nottingham, business and some civic leaders have had quite enough of Robin Hood.

They want a new image for this city identified with the swashbuckling hero of medieval myth and modern movies. For them, a hero who steals from the rich and gives to the poor doesn't strike the right tone.

But traditionalists are fuming at the prospect of the famed outlaw being sidelined for some ad agency line about investment opportunities.

Just go a few blocks past the Robin Hood theme center on Maid Marian Way to city hall, and ask the Sheriff of Nottingham.

"People don't come to look at Nottingham's business world -- they know nothing about it," says Sheriff Roy Greensmith, a retired rail man, city council member and current holder of the now ceremonial title.

"Visitors come because of the connection between the Sheriff and the legend of Robin Hood."

After 17 years of Conservative government, unease has grown in Nottingham about the town's link to an outlaw and a band of Merry Men armed with bows and arrows.

Two years ago, the city council, business and volunteer groups got together and commissioned a London firm to find out how people on the outside see this city of 280,000 on the edge of Sherwood Forest.

The answer was simple: They see Robin Hood. And not much else.

Now it's decision time. Four advertising agencies charged with finding something short and snappy -- along the lines of "I Love New York" -- make their presentations in a couple of weeks.

"Imagine a city as a brand," says Simon Wilkinson, chief executive of Nottingham First, a group of lawyers, accountants and other professionals pushing for change. "Then you want an image, an ad-like jingle.

"Saying 'The Robin Hood City' is saying it's a nice little place to go for a look-round, a bit of history, but it doesn't say much else."

Besides, he says, "I could say stealing from the rich and giving to the poor is a novel way of running professional business."

City officials advocate compromise -- something new without ditching Robin. Labor veterans like Sheriff Greensmith have gone along with the search for a new image, but they don't see what's wrong with Robin Hood in the first place.

"There is a need in this country today for a social conscience," says Greensmith, his rail union badge pinned alongside his formal chain of office. "And if Robin Hood is not the personification of social conscience, I don't know what is."

Business leaders point out that with 11-percent unemployment -several points above the national average -- the city should be more concerned about attracting Japanese computer chip plants and German electronics companies than with keeping the legend of Robin Hood alive.

Not so, says Ian Walker, manager of Tales of Robin Hood, a privately owned, $2.3-million theme center with 45 staff members.

"This is what they are trying to destroy, all this folklore and history," he says, showing a visitor shelves of Robin Hood dish towels, little arrows and Sherwood Forest T-shirts.

As Walker's promotional literature acknowledges, there's no proof that Robin Hood actually existed. His grave has never been found.

But many scholars say the yeoman and archer was born the son of a miller in the 12th or 13th century.

Ill-treated by the Sheriff of Nottingham, the monarch's chief law officer and tax collector, Robin defied royal authority, robbed rich travelers and distributed the booty among the poor.

The romantic interest of Maid Marian was invented a few centuries later, and the Victorians turned Robin into a nobleman.

For centuries it hasn't really mattered: Robin's a survivor, first in ballads, then poems, operas, plays and films. The most recent box office success, Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" premiered four years ago.

For Walker, the legend is the best thing the city has going for it.

"If it wasn't for Robin Hood," he says, "no one would have heard of Nottingham."

By Maureen Johnson / Associated Press. Copyright 1996, The Detroit News.

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