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Councillor says buying Castlebar barracks a top priority

Councillor says buying the barracks a top priority

Trevor Quinn

Cllr Eugene McCormack has told The Mayo News that Castlebar Town Council is doing all it can to buy Castlebar Army Barracks from the Department of Defence. His statement comes after last week’s shock government announcement that the barracks are to be closed.
The Islandeady man, who became Cathaoirleach of Castlebar Town Council earlier this year, explained that discussions over the purchase of the six-acre site have been taking place for a number of years. However, he believes that the prospect of an agreement is now more tangible, in light of falling property prices and the barracks’ impending closure.
Cllr McCormack said that in recent years, differences over the valuation of the barracks led to a stalemate. “Castlebar Town Council passed a motion to purchase the barracks but [in mid 2006] the Department of Defence was looking for €3.5 million for it.” During tentative talks, the council mentioned a figure of €1.5 million, but an agreement could not be reached.
The councillor believes the time could now be right for a purchase. “Property prices are now on the floor, so this could be a good news story for Castlebar. The site consists of six acres of prime retail estate in the middle of the town, so it would be a huge benefit if we could get control of it at a knock-down price.”

Tourism potential

Cllr McCormack believes that the barracks could prove a huge tourist attraction. He pointed out that Turlough House – now Turlough Park House Museum of Irish Country Life – was in a very similar position 20 years ago. The millionth visitor came through the museum’s doors in August 2010, and each year, it attracts over 100,000 people.
Mayo County Council purchased the house for £250,000 in 1991, and Cllr McCormack said lessons could be learnt from that acquisition. “There are a number of similarities. Mayo County Council bought it, and Enda Kenny, who was the Minister for Tourism, got the backing of the Government for the development. It has been a great addition to Mayo. I would be happy if the Council can get control [of the barracks] and we could do something similar to that.”

Phased transfer

Due to the monetary challenges that Castlebar Town Council is facing, Cllr McCormack is proposing a phased transfer from the Department of Defence over the next couple of years.  “The council is absolutely strapped for cash,” he said. “However, we would not like to see an opportunity like this pass.
“Our very worst fears would be for the barracks to be abandoned and left as an eyesore and potentially a centre for anti-social behaviour as has been the case at Magee Barracks in Kildare.”
Cllr McCormack said that while he believes security costs for the protection of the barracks would be minimal due to two narrow entrances at the front and the rear, he believes that the downside would be the estimated €250,000 annual cost of maintaining the building.

McCormack said there was a number of fundraising options were the council to buy the barracks, such as renting out parts of the building to enterprises and other organisations. “The County Council is renting a number of premises in Mayo. It would be very practical to do up sections of the building and use them for our own purposes, and I believe it would be cost neutral at worst.”
Castlebar Boxing Club and other sporting bodies in the area could feasibly benefit from the building, according to Cllr McCormack. “I was approached by the boxing club. There could be organisations like that who could benefit as well. It’s crucial that the council secures it. It’s too good an opportunity to miss. If we did not act, our children and our children’s children would never forgive us.”

FF criticism

Speaking to The Mayo News, however, Dara Calleary, Fianna Fáil Spokesperson on Justice, said he and his party colleagues are mystified as to the benefits. “There are no savings to be made here. We have gone through all of this and I cannot see where the savings will be made.”
Fianna Fáil Area Representative for Castlebar Lisa Chambers, who has been a member of the Reserve Defence Force since she was 16, has also criticised the decision to close the barracks. She said that the life skills and training which the military base offered will be sorely missed by young people in the area.