IT WAS a prize which had eluded Newport before, but 15 years ago the town launched a bid to become a city. MARTIN WADE looks back on Newport’s quest to become a city.

Newport had tried twice before to become a city. It was unsuccessful in the 1994 and again for the Millennium when it aimed to become Wales' fifth city, after Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and St Davids.

Newport’s efforts to become a city 15 years ago echo much of what drives the Argus campaign ‘Backing Newport’ today. Then, as now, the emphasis was on what makes Newport special and what makes it a great place to live.

In July 2001 the Prime Minister officially launched a competition for city status in 2002, confirming that one Welsh town will be made a city to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.

The town launched its third attempt in a decade to make Newport a city on September 1 2001.

The bid was launched against a backdrop of some gloom in Newport. More than 2,100 steel jobs had been axed in Gwent during the previous year, with more than 1,000 of those going when the heavy end of the Llanwern plant was closed.

Many hoped securing city status could reverse the town’s fortunes.

The town's main competitor was Wrexham, but Aberystwyth, Machynlleth, Newtown and St Asaph, were also in the running.

The bid kicked off with a series of Roman-themed events to celebrate the town's history with stallholders at the Indoor Market sporting period costume. In Commercial Street, shoppers were busy signing a petition supporting the town’s push to become the newest city in Wales. It was also promoted at that afternoon's Newport v Edinburgh rugby match.

But it wasn’t just Newport’s Roman past which was used to bolster the bid.

There were five key arguments in Newport's case to become the Queen's Golden Jubilee city in Wales.

1. Newport is a real city - it is the largest town in Wales without city status. It has both a cathedral and a university within its boundaries.

2. Newport is a royal and historic city - Caerleon was one of the three original cities of Roman Britain and was the historic seat of the King of Gwent. It was the stage for the Chartist uprising to play out.

3. Newport is a city of the future - it is the economic hub of the Welsh Valleys and one of the fastest growing areas in the UK.

4. Newport is a sporting city - it is the Welsh capital of golf and will host the 2009 Ryder Cup. It is the future home of the National Cycling Centre, and has well-loved speedway and football teams, as well as Wales' leading rugby club.

5. City status will mean a lot to Newport - it will recognise Newport's historic past and our aspirations for the future, and help underline its strategic economic and cultural importance.

South Wales Argus: OFFICIAL: The formal bid document presented to the Lord Chancellor

OFFICIAL: The formal bid document presented to the Lord Chancellor

Backing for the bid came from celebrities and residents alike. Former Newport man, Sir Anthony Hopkins said he was pleased to hear Newport was applying for the honour, adding: "I believe Newport has a strong case with its long and rich history and culture and the town's importance to the economy of Wales.”

South Wales Argus: Sir Anthony Hopkins insisted he's not quitting acting

Support too came from Sir Terry Matthews, owner of the Celtic Manor Resort. In the month of the campaign launch, news that the 2010 Ryder Cup would be held in Newport gave a great boost to Newport’s case.

He said: "Together with Newport council and others in Wales, we have successfully bid to host the 2010 Ryder Cup, an international event which is one of the most important sporting events in the world and attracts the third largest viewing audience globally."

Newport West MP Paul Flynn said the campaign itself had helped remind people of the town: "The bid process has given the people of Newport a great chance of looking anew at the town's strengths. We like what we see.” Newport, he added it was “a town of surprises, its world class attractions have too long been closely guarded secret.”

Bertram Bale chairman of the Newport branch of the Merchant Navy Association, said their backing for the city bid was “unanimous”, adding: "Hundreds of Newport merchant sailors lost their lives in the last war and the histories of Newport and the Merchant Navy are inseparably bound up."

Encouragement came from towns who had made successful bids before.

The Argus visited Sunderland - which became a city in 1992 - to find out how it had changed their home

Sunderland City council leader, Colin Anderson told the Argus that from 1992, "Sunderland started to get a smile back on its face" and changes started happening. Remembering life before Sunderland's bid for city status was accepted, he said: "At the time we were struggling from a lot of hard knocks; we'd lost our ship building industry and the coal mines were just about to be closed.

"It was a very dark period and everyone was down-hearted. City status said to people in Sunderland, 'people from outside admire you', and there's no greater recognition than that. The same year our polytechnic became a university, and our football team went to the Premiership. It was that kind of year.

And so through that Autumn, the campaign grew. Pupils from Gaer junior school joined the Secretary of State for Wales and Torfaen MP Paul Murphy to formally present the bid in October.

By December Gwent AMs from all parties put aside their differences to add their united support to the bid campaign.

In the new year, Newport MPs Alan Howarth and Paul Flynn hosted a reception at Westminster to promote the bid, while Newport AMs John Griffiths and Rosemary Butler promoted the bid in Cardiff Bay. There, a special cake, baked by Gemelli's, was raffled and won by a BBC journalist.

Although it was known the result would be made public sometime in March, we only found out the exact date when it was leaked to the Argus. Thursday, March 14 would be decision day.

As we know, the bid was successful. While Wrexham mourned a lost opportunity, Newport celebrated. The Argus front page simply said ‘Newport, New City’.

Announcing the new cities, the Lord Chancellor said: "These honours are sparingly bestowed as a mark of special distinction and the accolades were richly deserved by the winners."

South Wales Argus: CELEBRATION: Pupils from Gaer Infants School gave the good news

CELEBRATION: Pupils from Gaer Infants School gave the good news

The then First Minister Rhodri Morgan sent a personal message of congratulations to Newport, saying it was a "well-deserved honour". He said Newport has had "most, if not all the characteristics of a city for many decades. It is a go-ahead and vibrant gateway into Wales."

The Argus told how the new status would strengthen Newport's fightback following the loss of steel jobs in attracting new employers and jobs.

Paul Murphy added: "This news today will be welcomed throughout the town. The past 12 months have been truly traumatic for Newport and its people."

The benefits that were hoped for may have been slow in coming, but the revitalisation that Newport is now seeing surely means some of the vision shown in 2001 is finally becoming clear.