DESERVING Ballinrobe’s growing population deserves the same level of civic and cultural amenities that other towns of similar size can boast.
On a stroll through Ballinrobe on Wednesday last, lots of things were apparent.
The mart still attracts plenty of farmers to the town once a week, although not quite in the same numbers as yesteryear.
Derelict buildings still present a negative vista on arrival. There’s a lot of them on the Castlebar road, despite the impressive renovation in recent weeks of Robe Villa.
The retail building on the Neale Road is quite an eyesore now. All are reminders of how important it is to have proper enforcement of derelict buildings. Where the line between someone’s individual property rights and wider civic rights to a community, without unnecessary eyesores, stands is something official Ireland has never been entirely sure on.
But the town centre is busy. Grocery shops and many different retail outlets have plenty of footfall.
As local businessman Richard Burke noted, Covid-19 lockdowns forced many people to rely on local and plenty were pleasantly surprised as to the range of options on their doorsteps, when trips to Galway or Castlebar were out. The trick now is to keep them.
To that end you get a sense there’s a very proactive and positive attitude among businesses and community leaders in Ballinrobe, who also recognise the town has the capacity to act as a hub for surrounding villages.
But there’s plenty of room for improvement too, and there’s only so much local goodwill can do.
The lack of a hotel is lamented by many of those we spoke with. There were two hotels in the town during the Celtic Tiger. There’s none now. There’s a shortage of guesthouse accommodation too. It means that when there are big events in the town or surrounds, guests often end up staying in Claremorris, Westport or Cong.
There were ambitious plans for a 46-bedroom hotel at the site of Cranmore House in the town. That project received planning permission in 2017, but the plans have stalled.
Typically the market determines the viability or otherwise of such investments. But there can be no denying the wider benefits to a town like Ballinrobe of a large hotel in the area. Other businesses in the town would benefit considerably, and the social and cultural benefits could be substantial too.
The State made a mess of tax designations for hotels during the Celtic Tiger and too many white elephants were built.
However, perhaps there’s an argument for a nuanced approach that can examine the wider benefits for hotels in towns like Ballinrobe and provide supports accordingly.
Town hall plans
The ability to improve town centres in a more general sense is something that the Government can assist with too. To this end, the Rural Regeneration Development Fund and the Town and Village Renewal Scheme are funding schemes that can empower towns like Ballinrobe.
Run by the Department of Rural and Community Development, the funding freeze that was in place on Mayo County Council up until last month didn’t help matters.
Belmullet, for example, was unsuccessful in its application for a €16 million town centre transformation under the RRDF.
Ballinrobe Town Hall Committee has applied for €4.5 million from the RRDF, which they would then match with €1.2 million in local contributions, to redevelop of the old Valkenburg Hotel into a new town hall. The group is supported by South West Mayo Development Company (Leader).
The aim is to have a centre that will be an arts and culture venue whilst also incorporating much-needed accommodation as well as a coffee shop and bistro.
“There is no doubt it can have a transformative effect on the Main Street and the town as a whole,” said Michael Sweeney, chairperson of the committee. Those involved will know later this year if they’ve been successful or not.
For rural towns like Ballinrobe to transform, they need grassroots commitment and vision from local groups.
The likes of civic pride group Believe in Ballinrobe is an example of this, with one of their most successful initiatives being the Lakes Gift Card which can be redeemed at almost 100 outlets in Ballinrobe and its hinterlands. In just 20 months they’ve hit sales of over €500,000.
And Ballinrobe is far from a dying rural town.
As we reported in a feature on rural depopulation in Mayo last year, towns like Ballinrobe and Claremorris bucked the trend, compared with rural villages in north Mayo.
While many of those northern parishes showed national school attendance figures fall to a third of what they were in 1994, on the cusp of the Celtic Tiger, Ballinrobe was an example of a population boom by comparison.
From 1994 to 2022, national schools in Ballinrobe saw a staggering 37 percent increase, from 388 in 1994 to 532 now.
Given that the typical family size has fallen considerably in that same period, such a rise shows how popular Ballinrobe has become to live in. St Joseph’s NS in the town is the largest national school in the county.
People argue that if you build it, they will come. In Ballinrobe’s case, the people have arrived. Surely they should have the level of civic and cultural amenities that other towns of similar size can boast?
It’s an ideal base for people who can commute to work in Westport, Castlebar and Galway, while there is plenty of local employment too.
It is clear that locals have a justifiable pride in their hometown and that plenty more want to live there too.
Ballibrobe’s a town with bucketloads of potential. It just needs some help along the way.