Council chief says Longford on brink of 'significant' breakthrough

Council chief says Longford on brink of 'significant' breakthrough

There are challenging jobs and then there are ones that bring an extra air of responsibility and significance.

As chief executive of Longford County Council, Paddy Mahon knows all too well about the pressures and demands which come with being the leading figurehead of local governance for more than 40,000 of this county’s inhabitants.

For the past nine months, the Tuam native has presided over a local authority and county infused with a new found sense of confidence and determination, mirrored by a country’s resurgence from Ireland’s Celtic Tiger malaise.

Fast forward three quarters a year and you get the feeling the NUIG graduate is still pinching himself at the lofty position he now finds himself in.

“It’s a very important job regardless of whichever county it’s in,” he said when asked about what goes into being the CEO of a county council. 

“It’s a well sought after job, put it like that but I was very fortunate to be selected through an interview process for the role. It’s a very important job, a challenging job but it’s a job that does attract a lot of interest.”

Much of that interest and media spotlight was driven by the controversies that surrounded the departure of his predecessor, Tim Caffrey from office almost 12 months ago.

They are contentions which despite remaining part of an ongoing Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) inquiry, are of little or no concern to Longford County Council’s incumbent commander in chief.

“I just look at the role in a very positive way,” he diplomatically asserted.

“The chief executive has got a very, very important role in the context of leading, serving and working with the elected members to represent the communities of Co Longford. 

“It’s a very positive role and I look to the now and to the future.

“My primary function is to serve as chief executive of Longford County Council. 

“That is the number one priority. But the job of chief executive does involve engaging with organisations and bodies, some of which are regional and some of which are national. 

“We work with the elected members, local community and business groups in making sure those communities are well served by us.

“But it also requires us to look beyond the county and to look to regional bodies like the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, neighbouring county councils and to national organisations and departments because our future is tied in to not just how we work locally but how we collaborate with regional and national bodies to make sure the county develops the way it should.”

Mr Mahon’s arrival from his previously held Director of Services role with Mayo County Council also coincided with a changing of the guard at the council executive's top table.

Senior figures headed by the likes of Jack Kilgallon, Frank Sheridan and Barry Lynch either retired or moved on to pastures new.

In their place came Director of Services Barbara Heslin, John Brannigan and Head of Finance John McKeon.

They were changes, some observers, including elected members, believe brought with them a new dimension and air of optimism in Longford’s social, economic and infrastructural future.

The anticipated arrival of Center Parcs in a little over two years time is expected to lay much of the groundwork for those well laid intentions.

Simply waiting for the UK leisure resort giant to provide the catalyst in propelling Longford’s profile as a tourism destination on a national and international stage is not part of the Galwegian’s vocabulary however.

“(Center Parcs) will be hugely important and will bring a lot of positive economic activity to the county. 

“On top of that we have to make sure the rest of the county is in a position to attract other types of investment. 

“For instance, if you look around us and look at neighbouring towns in neighbouring counties we don’t have a motorway access to the capital, our neighbouring regional towns have that.

“We don’t have natural gas in Longford, our neighbouring towns have that. For us to be able to compete with our neighbours to attract the type of investment I believe Longford needs, we need to have those infrastructural facilities in place.”

It was precisely at that stage of our conversation the well spoken father of four looked across from the confines of his office to the still vacant shopping centre at the foot of Longford town.

Built and completed in 2009 by bankrupt billionaire developer Bernard McNamara, the 10,000 sq ft facility has remained one of the ill-fated ghosts of Longford’s Celtic Tiger legacy.

Now, and thanks to concerted behind the scenes efforts, the centre together with the Council-owned former Connolly Barracks site is in the process of being offered up for sale.

And for someone who has played a key part in bringing those plans to fruition, it’s a prospect that can’t come soon enough.

“The council has worked very closely with NAMA and with the receivers to make sure that that project is now virtually ready to go to the market. 

“The council needs to work locally, regionally and nationally with the different agencies to make sure this town and this county has got the necessary investment and supports in place that will attract investors and visitors to come here.

“The area that’s called the Northern Quarter which effectively is the shopping centre and army barracks is ready to go to the market and we would be hopeful that the market, as in private market sector, there will be enough interest there so that that quarter should be developed to our satisfaction and to the owners of the shopping centre’s satisfaction so that it can become a vibrant part of Longford town.”

Like a number of other local politicians who have flagged the idea in the past, Mr Mahon is quite receptive to the idea of a new hotel taking up anchorage there.

A large slice of that assumption is based on the increased need for beds one of Britain’s largest commercial companies is set to bring to Longford once it sets up operations here.

“It’s hard to see how Longford isn’t going to move forward without a fully thriving hotel somewhere in the town,” opined Mr Mahon, while professing the belief that Longford was now on the “cusp of a very, very significant uplift” in the broader tourism sector.

“We can’t at the moment host large conferences in the town because we don’t have the facilities.  

“The demand for bed space will increase significantly (with the arrival of Center Parcs) and it will raise the profile of Longford.

“That coupled with the significant number of tourism projects that have been developed by the county council either in the south of the county along the Royal Canal Greenway and the concept of a Wilderness Park around Lough Ree and the enhancement of the Corlea centre is going to improve the quality of the tourism attraction there. The whole concept of the literary trail in and around Edgeworthstown is going to attract people and the rebel trail in the north of the county means there will be a lot of other things for people to do in Longford when Center Parcs does arrive here.”

The clear and decisive tone in the county CE’s voice is refreshing. Making sure the county, at both ends of the county is well placed to reap the rewards from a revitalised wider economy is something the qualified civil engineer clearly places a lot of emphasis on.

A recently launched €43m capital investment plan covering headline topics from housing to infrastructural modifications may be aspirational in its delivery but is very much symptomatic of the confidence that currently permeates through the corridors of Aras an Chontae.

“We have very ambitious plans in housing, in getting new builds built, and we are already working on a housing scheme in Drumlish. We are also planning to regenerate a lot of housing areas in towns and villages around the county and tidying up existing towns by providing more appropriate housing in the towns and villages around the county as well as roads and tourism facilities around the county.

“If you look at what has happened in the last year, it is evidence based in that we have started a housing programme and we hope to carry out a lot of purchases to repair houses in Longford town and county this year,” said Mr Mahon. 

“We are also looking at the renew and lease scheme which will involve upgrading houses around the town and the county. 

“We have a lot of work going on in town and village renewal schemes and have got significant grants from the Department of Rural Affairs in that area but also in the REDZ programme (Rural Economic Development Zone). There is money to build a pedestrian bridge to improve the whole interactivity around this part of the town so there is a lot of money coming from the State that might not have come in the past and there is a prospect of similar monies coming over coming years which gives us the degree of confidence to plan for the next three years.” Of course plans are one thing, making them become a reality is an entirely different prospect altogether.

The fact Department of Transport officials willingly signed off on over €500,000 last year to allow for the completion of the Royal Canal Greenway between Abbeyshrule and Ballymahon was, perhaps, further evidence of Longford’s burgeoning tourism appeal.

“If we can attract similar funding this year we will complete the Royal Canal Greenway throughout the county so that hopefully by the end of the year we should have a continuous greenway throughout the county along the Canal with a link back into Longford town and that will connect with the Canal Greenway which runs right through Westmeath. 

“I am fairly sure that will attract tens of thousands of tourists from the Shannon at Clondra back through Westmeath and all the way to Dublin.”

Whether those bold predictions come to pass or not, Longford, as Mr Mahon is only too well aware has other challenges in its path.

Arguably the biggest of those is how the local authority and other state agencies continues in its efforts to offset the 170 job losses at Cameron.

Mahon and his team, together with the council’s current crop of 18 elected members, came in for plenty of heightened attention in the days and weeks following that announcement.

The setting up or a multi-agency group in response was a measure he believes was the right one in terms of showing leadership and support to those affected.

More recently, he, together with Cathaoirleach Mick Cahill brought that agenda to the attention of IDA dignitaries in New York as part of the Big Apple’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

A perennial topic for conversation among certain sceptics, the Council chief defended the decision to travel, saying the chance to showcase Longford was simply too good of an opportunity to spurn.

“The county council was invited by the Longford Association in New York to attend their annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations and also to accompany them on the parade in New York. 

“That was an invitation that was very welcome and it allowed us, myself and the Cathaoirleach to go to New York and meet firstly with the Longford diaspora in New York and, secondly, to take the opportunity to meet with national bodies, some of whom are based outside of the country, to promote everything that Longford has to offer.

“This council is very keen to promote Longford as a place with huge potential. There is work to be done but the potential is there to convince investors and government departments to stay with us so we can deliver on all of our plans.”

And delivery, you feel, is something Longford’s most senior civil servant remains very much intent on realising.