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Sleigh Wars

Comment & Opinion

THE MAN HIMSELF Santa Claus received a very special welcome from local children on his arrival to launch Ballina’s Frosty Salmon Christmas Festival last week. Pic: Henry Wills

‘WE’RE not there yet … but we’re getting there’ was a slogan used for a long time by Iarnród Éireann. At the moment, it certainly could be applied to the economy and our journey as a country on the road back to prosperity.
The Christmas spend is always a reliable litmus test for people’s confidence in the economy, and according to Retail Ireland research, Irish households will each spend €2,690 on average this Christmas – a 3 percent increase on the average spend last year.
According to Retail Ireland’s Christmas Retail Monitor, households in Ireland will spend €866 more during December than during any other month in the year. In total, it expects that €4.65 billion will be spent during the period – €150 million more than last Christmas.
So the economy is, in general, going in the right direction. However, there are concerns that the extra spend is taking place mostly in the bigger towns and population centres, and that businesses in the smaller towns are still struggling to survive.
This theory was backed up last week by another report, this time from the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland. It stated that out-of-town retail developments have ‘decimated’ small town centres, which were ill-prepared for the recession and are still struggling to bounce back.
The ‘Rejuvenating Ireland’s Small-Town Centres’ report focused on 200 towns with populations of between 1,500 and 10,000. Together, the towns are home to 600,000 people, 13 percent of the population. Businesses in these towns are said to be struggling, though the report found that some towns are ‘bucking the trend’, including Naas, Clonakilty and Westport here in Mayo.

Westport complacent?
There is no doubt that Westport is still seen as being highly prosperous from the outside looking in. With well-known international companies like Allergan and Portwest, healthy tourism figures and a slew of national awards, Westport is often perceived as a town that has it solved, with problems few and far between.
But the reality is that all the hard work that has taken place to make Westport the town it is today has to continue, and if anything, must be upped a notch or two to keep the town among the most prosperous in the country.
Other larger Mayo towns have upped their game and are looking forward to a bumper Christmas. The Frosty Salmon Festival in Ballina is choc-a-bloc with activities throughout the month of December, with highlights including the visit of the Coca Cola Christmas Truck and Irish Rail’s Polar Express. Castlebar too will be hopeful of another successful season, with ‘Mayo on Ice’ returning to the Mall.
Smaller towns too are getting in on the act, with Ballinrobe’s Christmas Tractor Run bringing a large crowd to the town last Sunday and Newport organising a novel Christmas Village, modelled on the Christmas markets trend that is so popular on the continent.
Westport for years has led the way in terms of organising these highly attractive events, which bring shoppers right into the town centre, but as of yet, nothing has been advertised in relation to a switching on of the town lights or the arrival of Santa – and that is surprising considering there are just three weeks left until Christmas Day.
One initiative worth lauding is ‘Mayo is Magic’, which involves local businesses in both Westport and Castlebar are being promoted in tandem, in the hope of attracting visitors to stand-out attractions such as Winter Wonderland at Westport House and Mayo on Ice in Castlebar.
The importance of attracting visitors to our local towns is huge, but there is also an onus on the residents of these smaller towns to ‘shop local’ during the Christmas period.

No magic wand
After the massive commercialism of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the Small Firms Association also last week called on shoppers to support smaller businesses.
The organisation stated that if each adult spent just €20 extra in small businesses this Christmas, it would amount to an injection of over €73 million for small Irish firms and would have a huge, positive impact on local jobs and the vibrancy of town and village centres.
Ensuring the economic health of our towns is clearly a huge challenge for everyone involved, and it is undoubtedly a delicate balancing act. The onus   is on public and private sectors to make it attractive to live and shop in towns, while all of us must try to spend as much as we can locally to help businesses survive and keep jobs in operation.
There is no magic wand to help towns prosper; it takes hard work and commitment from both local and national government, and from the businesses themselves. Standing still isn’t an option, and resting on one’s laurels is a dangerous game – especially when that laurel wreath also contains some holly.