‘Ballymahon will be the envy of every other town’

Liam Cosgrove

Reporter:

Liam Cosgrove

Email:

liam.cosgrove@longfordleader.ie

Ballymahon

Ballymahon is a town very much going places, according to local stakeholders

Mention the name Ballymahon to practically anyone these days and almost inevitably the words Center Parcs are brought to bear.

The promise of 1,000 jobs, 2,500 visitors each week and a €32m annual injection to Ireland’s gross domestic product, why wouldn’t it?

But is that the end sum of what is the county’s fastest growing town, or are there other, equally palatable socio-economic strings to its bow.

One of those perhaps best placed to pass an educated appraisal of Ballymahon’s present well-being is local GAA stalwart Albert Fallon.

The Rochfortbridge native and retired schoolteacher is quite candid in delivering his own verdict on a town he has called home for the past 46 years.

“At that time (1973) I think there was 17 pubs and there are seven now.

“That tells its own tale but it’s going well as a town,” he says, as the conversation inevitably turns towards the imminent arrival of the UK leisure giant.

“It’s the only game in town but you ask some of the locals and local businesspeople and many will say they don’t feel it has really taken off for them yet but definitely the amount of traffic coming through this town is serious.”

A lot of the plaudits for that uptake in footfall he lays firmly at the door of Ballymahon’s Tidy Towns Committee and to its local politicians.

At the top of that list he namedrops the presence of Fianna Fáil’s Pat O’Toole, whom he describes as being “fantastic” despite

his own self confessed Fine Gael leanings.

That said, Albert is acceptive of the need for further gains to be made, not least in terms of the perennial challenges facing provincial GAA clubs in retaining player numbers.

“I would say myself this is the only time we have been affected by emigration and that has reflected itself on the football field,” he admits.

“We were badly hit when we lost three fellas to Canada last summer. We would have very little problem with a young fella going.

“But we lost Colm Flynn to Mayo and while everyone is delighted for Colm because he was a great servant and played for us right up until he was 32 or 33, it was a huge loss to us.”

Those departures aside, Albert is quite clear about Ballymahon’s current footing and where he believes the town is headed with or without the economic muscle of a Center Parcs.

“We do have a lot to offer and I do think we will be the main town in Longford going forward,” he confides.

His GAA club executive colleague and stalwart, Mike Cooney is just as bullish.

Born and reared in the town, the Cooney name is synonymous with the entrepreneurial spirit which is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in the south Longford town.

“We are almost 40 years in business in the town,” he puts it stoically.

“There have been huge changes to it.

“When I was growing up it would have been a laid back, kind of sleepy town, a typical rural town or village where the shops wouldn’t open until 11am and there would be a half day on a Wednesday.”

He can remember the market and fair days too, a throwback to an urban setting very much at odds with those of its post Celtic Tiger equivalents.

Having started out operating from a modestly sized 300sq ft premises selling fruit, veg, fish and poultry, Mike gradually expanded its scope more than 20 times over before selling it off in 2003.

He’s quite philosophical when the question is put to him about whether the town has been as good to him as he has to Ballymahon.

“A lot of people will tell you we have given a lot to the town, we have put the first decent supermarket into it and the same with the hotel.

“When we sold the shop in 2003 and we got over €3m for it, we invested the money into the town.

“We could have sailed away into the sunset but we wanted something more for the town.

“Both our fathers were building contractors and my father built the mart here back in 1960 so we are dyed-in-the-wool Ballymahon people,” he adds with more than a tinge of pride.

The memory of April 1 2015 when Martin Dalby and the Center Parcs brand chose his hotel to unveil their ambitious plans for a 395 acre holiday resort still gratifies him.

And though the need to extend the arrival of gas to the remainder of the town is something he and other like minded business figureheads crave, Ballymahon could not be in better shape, he maintains.

“We need to get the natural gas continued.

“It’s at the bridge and we need to get that continued throughout the town as it is a huge saving for businesses. If natural gas was in here in the hotel it would save me €10,000 a year.

“People don’t realise the scale and magnitude of it that there will be 1,000 staff out there and they are all going to need accommodation as well as their families.

“It will be huge and we will be the envy of every other provincial town that’s out there.”

Seán Colohan and his girlfriend, Carla Naltchayan, certainly hope so. The pair are currently in the throes of unleashing the latest distillery model on the county by virtue of their Wide Street Brewing Company model.

The couple acquired a commercial premises just off the main Creevaghbeg road last summer.

The best part of a year on and somewhere between €50,000 to €100,000 later, the start-up is one Seán believes can make a similar, if not bigger impact to that made by its St Mel’s counterpart in Longford town.

“I have been home brewing for the past five years and that is where my passion is,” he says.

“I saw a gap in the market and an even bigger market in the types of beers that we plan on making.

“We are doing something different to what they are doing in terms of fermentation and styles of beer we are making, so we are not exactly crossing over.”

The loss of his job just before Christmas may have knocked many off their stride. Not this progressive, go-getting entrepreneur, who like messrs Cooney and Fallon before him, is looking forward to a Ballymahon in much sunnier economic climes.

“We have been planning this for two or three years now and we weren’t doing this solely around Center Parcs,” says the friendly 39-year-old.

“But now we have Center Parcs on the outskirts of the town you can see for yourself the amount of construction work that is going on and there are people crying out for houses, so there is a bit of excitement about the place.”

It’s a bullish admission Peter Dennehy, chairperson of Ballymahon Traders Association is more relaxed about.

In keeping with many of his peers, Peter is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the multi million euro leisure firm.

But like any broad-minded businessman, he is looking at a much bigger picture, a picture which includes the harnessing of the town’s own tourism potential and a solution to its long term parking dilemmas.

With the Royal Canal Greenway destined to provide a continuous link between Ballymahon and Dublin, Peter’s keeping his fingers crossed a further extension to Achill Island in May could make it the longest off road cycleway in Europe.

That, allied to the proposed development of an off street car park to the rear of the town’s SuperValu store, together with a modernisation of its streetscape fabric, are key plus points.

“You have to start looking down the road,” he admits, while casting a longing gaze out of his business premises and onto the town’s bustling main street.

“Center Parcs Longford Forest will be good to us from the point of view there will be €27m in wages coming out of it every year.

“A certain amount of that will be spent in the local area. We will have 2,500 people coming and going per week and a certain number of businesses will land something out of that but so will Mullingar, so will Athlone, Edgeworthstown and Granard.

“Everyone is chasing the same rabbit and we, as a town, have got to diversify.”

Part of that diversification has sparked calls for a “fit for purpose playground”, something Peter believes will only serve to cultivate Ballymahon’s tourism appeal still further.

“They are the little things we have to work on, but it will come in time,” he says with an air of confidence.

“Things are going in the right direction.

“It’s a matter of keeping everyone informed and just making sure everyone keeps pulling together.”