BUSY THOROUGHFARE Streets like Pearse Street in Ballina would normally be bustling during the May Bank Holiday weekend but were very empty over the weekend. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Ballina is looking to position itself to benefit on all fronts once Covid-19 restrictions are lifted
FOR over 60 years the Ballina Salmon Festival has been an integral part of the local community and has woven itself into the town’s cultural, social and economic fabric.
Due to take place from July 5 to July 12 this year, it was expected to draw a crowd of over 200,000 people to the area, with estimations to the benefit of the local economy in surplus of €5 million.
The organising committee were ahead of schedule this year, having already dotted the ‘i’s’ and crossed the ‘t’s’ for a week that was to be filled with culture, heritage and entertainment.
But for probably the first time in its history, the Festival has had to be postponed due to Covid-19.
“We had the whole festival put to bed in terms of organisation and it’s the first time we have had it done this early,” local businessman and chairperson of the Salmon Festival committee Paul Regan told The Mayo News.
“It has never been called off in circumstances like this before, but when the recent directive from the Government concerning crowds of 5,000 was released, we had to pull the plug on it.”
But easy as it would be to rest on their laurels and focus their intentions on 2021, the committee are bullish in their commitment to deliver that element of life and joy that the Salmon Festival brings to Ballina.
They recognise that the festival brings much more than monetary benefits to the town and its local people, and that’s why they’re focused on organising a smaller event when the dust settles.
“We have absolutely every intention of pulling off a smaller Salmon Festival towards the back end of the year when it’s safe to do so,” said Paul, who is proprietor of Dillon’s Bar and Restaurant. “People come from all over for the festival and book their holidays around it, and it’s synonymous with Ballina now.
“And once this is all over, people will need to get out and see what is happening around the place, to enjoy themselves again, and that’s one of the most important things about these festivals.”
A member of the local Chamber of Commerce, Paul says the business community in the town remain ‘positive and optimistic’ and he himself hopes to be operating, albeit under new HSE guidelines, by the end of July.
He said the local economy was ‘flying it’ before Covid-19 halted everyone in their tracks, but added that ‘without a doubt we’ll be back as strong as ever’ when it all comes to an end, hailing the support of the local people as a big factor why.
Tourism was on the up
ANOTHER sector of Ballina that was growing at a rapid rate was their tourism industry.
Historically more of market focused town, thanks to organisations like the Mayo North Promotions Office, it’s been developing a strong tourism identity in recent years by showcasing its stunning and often overlooked natural resources and amenities.
Before Covid-19 took hold, the town ran a hugely successful Other Voices Festival and were on the cusp of a large national media PR campaign to boast more of its tourism potential, but that focus has now shifted due to the unprecedented circumstances.
But, as Anne-Marie Flynn of Mayo North Promotions Office tells The Mayo News, there is still loads of opportunity for the town to come out of this period even stronger on the tourism front.
“We’re going to have to try and pick up where we left off once this is all over and we’re optimistic we can do that,” the well-known Mayo News columnist said. “I know from speaking to people in the hospitality industry, they’re not very optimistic about overseas travellers this season because of Covid-19, so there’s a sense we’re going to be focusing on the domestic market.
“Of course it’s very difficult to how this is going to pan out and obviously it’s quite different to the last economic crash because it’s still unknown if there will be money in circulation.
“But I think that people will be focusing on staying at home and travelling in Ireland. So this is a great opportunity for Ballina and North Mayo. We’ve a low population density, so social distancing along our stunning coasts and spectacular scenery is not going to be a problem and I think it can be an appealing prospect for people.”
Anne-Marie is still hopeful of some festivals taking place towards the latter end of 2020, but right now is focusing her skills to help the local business community who she says are really making use of this free time.
“A lot of my days now are spent doing one-to-one calls with smaller businesses who might be trying to upscale their social media or their marketing, things they might not have got time to do before,” she said. “We get quite a few community organisations contacting us for help of funding applications etc, so this is a good time for people to step back and focus on things such as developing a website and growing their brand.
“There’s a been a huge collaborative effort from the business community, who all have their eye on the bigger picture right now.”
‘Strong town spirit’
LOCAL Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary has hailed the Ballina people as been very ‘resolute’ during this period and believes the strong town spirit that exists is why it’s been able to cope well during the lockdown.
He’s singled out the fundraisers taking place, and groups such as Over 55s club and Social Protection Offices for their work.
“People here are determined to keep going,” he said. “I just look at the Salmon Festival for example. It’s not cancelled, it’s just postponed and that says a lot because they’re determined to have a festival in the town for our people.
“We’ve all seen strong spirit in how the town is trying to figure out how to be as supportive as they can to people who have had family members who have passed away. We’ve seen neighbours come out on roads for funeral corteges and it’s been very supportive in a non-contact environment.
“So the one thing that strikes me is how resolute the town is to beat this. People are determined to do their bit.
“We have a lot of independent retailers in this town and they’re going to have to get more support, along with our hospitality industry, to get back up and running, because they’re losing trade. And I believe the government are going to have to step in there with direct support, like grants, to get the businesses up and running again.”
Before all of Covid-19 is said and done, Calleary will most likely find himself in a senior government position with Fianna Fail and he’s quick to point out to The Mayo News that before everything else he’s ‘still a local TD’, that ‘loves this town and this county’.
His local people will need him now more than ever.