On a path of renewal

Notes from the Western Periphery

Kiltimagh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a model for all small towns

The 1980s was an even worse time for small rural towns than the 1950s. The prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s had given people hope, but the deep recession of the 1980s dashed that hope. Mass emigration started up again, and towns like Kiltimagh were being further hollowed out and devastated.
Kiltimagh’s plight was set out in an Irish Times articles by Caroline Walsh in 1989 (‘The Town They Left Behind’), echoing John Healy’s earlier Charlestown narrative of 1968 (‘The Death of an Irish Town’). The town’s location added to the serious challenges that it faced. One travelled from Dublin to Castlebar and never passed through Kiltimagh, since it is side-lined by the two main east-west national routes (the N5 and the N60).
The recovery process that arose in Kiltimagh in the late 1980s is an example of what can be achieved if a community self-organises, owns the challenge and acts decisively.
Building on earlier work of the Mayo County Development Team in the mid 1980s (The Moy Catchment’s Future), a start was made on a recovery plan, funded initially by voluntary contributions in order to build up resources that could be used to start working and eventually attract co-finance from state agencies and reluctant-to-lend banks. A crucial decision was made to staff a small office to work on the development of concrete initiatives and co-ordinate volunteers when they tackled the many tasks facing Kiltimagh as it started to turn around its fortunes.

Challenges
The initial focus was on immediate job creation in the town. The challenges were daunting: small farms, little by way of industry, limited tourism potential, town buildings in a state of dereliction and decay. Working jointly with the Mayo County Development Team, a start was made to renovate the town, restore decayed buildings, and find new uses for them. The transformation was dramatic, driven from the HQ of IRD Kiltimagh, a company set up in 1989 with the mission ‘to develop Kiltimagh to its fullest and in a way which benefits all in the Community’ (see www.ird-kiltimagh.ie).
Further enhancement programmes included new facilities for children, arts and culture activities, housing provision, tourism initiatives and support that led to the establishment of a new hotel and the renovation of an existing hotel.
While the renovation of the physical fabric of the town is the most visible manifestation of the success of IRD Kiltimagh, its directors realised that in the absence of local employment opportunities, the town would continue to struggle in its quest to thrive.
One of the first significant projects conducted was the provision of enterprise workspace, developed initially in Enterprise House in the centre of the town, providing 10,000 sq ft and financed by IRD own resources, the IDA and FÁS. An indication of the resolve and dedication of the IRD was that bank loans obtained to finance the new enterprise centres required personal guarantees from founding IRD directors.

Successful steps
An early success story related to CMS Peripherals, a company specialising in the application of IT products for businesses, which started up in the Enterprise Centre in 1992, but by the year 2000 it had outgrown available space and relocated to a larger premises on the outskirts of the town. It has a workforce of about 100.
Another step forward was targeting of broadband for the Kiltimagh area, which now boasts world-class fibre infrastructure and connectivity, an essential for business development.
The most ambitious enterprise initiative was the completion of the town’s Cairn International Trade Centre, a sophisticated modern office building with access to the very latest in communications technology.
At almost 100 percent occupancy, current tenants range over civil engineering, engineering consultancy, electrical power solutions and energy sales, technology-driven sustainable energy, smart home solutions, agricultural equipment, production of support products for those with autism, and recruitment consultancy.

Ownership key
The toughest challenge faced by organisations like IRD Kiltimagh is the need to evolve a development model that is appropriate for small towns, or more generally, groupings of small towns in a peripheral region like County Mayo.
The success of IRD Kiltimagh depended on the fact that its Directors realised that if they ‘owned’ amenity planning and town renewal, they also needed to ‘own’ enterprise/economic development planning. The logic was that attractive towns that only offered limited accessible employment opportunities for its people would suffer, but enterprises were less likely to locate in unattractive towns that offered no business-friendly supports or a family-friendly environment. Progress on both fronts was essential for success.
IRD Kiltimagh is an example of a small, rural town organisation that crafted its own vibrant start-up community; its own entrepreneurial ecosystem based on initial local mobilisation and self-help; working in close contact with regional and national public agencies and civil society in order to reverse population decline and stimulate growth and development.
As one strolls around this charming town, populated by its friendly ghostly statues of Raifteirí an file, the elegant stationmaster and a local reading the newspaper, one senses echoes of a gentler, kinder age. The latest innovation, Velorail, based on part of the currently disused Western Rail Corridor track, will liven things up for a younger generation of visitors and is due for launch early next year.
Kiltimagh has achieved wonders but is not resting on its laurels.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.