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Making the most of a landmark land bank

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Making the most of a distinctive land bank


While the proposed purchase of the convent site has been welcomed, there is a strong desire that it be developed optimally

News Feature
Neill O'Neill

WITH the news last week that County Manager Des Mahon has put a deposit on the 4.4-acre Convent of Mercy site on Altamont Street in Westport came a lot of speculation about what this might mean for the town.
The announcement was widely welcomed in the locality, where the lack of civic amenities and facilities has long been lamented.
At last month’s meeting of Westport Town Council, Cllr Peter Flynn circulated a document outlining his discontent at the fact that despite the years of unprecedented economic boom the country has just come through, the level of public and recreational amenities in Westport has never been lower.
He said that the Town Hall is now defunct and the library dilapidated; he called the rented civic offices ‘money down the drain’ and bemoaned the lack of all-weather public sporting facilities in the area.
In line with the rest of his elected colleagues, Cllr Flynn welcomed last week’s developments on the convent, and said the potential for the buildings and grounds means they are a tremendous asset for the town. He said he hopes the opportunity to fully realise this potential is taken.
“All community services should be available in the new civic centre,” he said. “The library should be relocated there, along with the social services, community groups and volunteer organisations. This is our chance to create a real centre for the community in the heart of Westport. The potential is there to open up the viaduct for a walk and link it with the railway walk or the path up along the Carrowbeg River by the new development on Altamont Street. It could even be brought by the woods into Buckwaria or join up with the old railway line behind Allergan that continues on towards Newport. There would need to be a lot of thought put into this but the potential exists for a network of walks to radiate out from this new civic centre.”
According to Cllr Flynn, the Council would then be free to regenerate areas such as that where the public library currently exists – further enhancing the town. He said that this will only be a success if a co-ordinated approach is taken between the voluntary organisations in Westport and the Town Council.
“We need to take a hard look at what’s in the town and draw up a priority list of what can be achieved over the next five to ten years,” he said. “We need to see what can be incorporated into the convent plans and what needs to be dealt with separately, and then seek realistic funding. We’d all love tens of millions of euro for new facilities but that’s not going to happen so we need to set a realistic target and then ask the good people of Westport to support us. They were not found wanting when St Mary’s Church was being renovated or when the Leisure Park was being built.”

OTHER LOST AMENITIES
IN his presentation last month, Cllr Flynn also spoke of the old handball alley and gym which were at the rear of the town hall and were open for public use up until recent years. Today, only privately-operated school halls provide such facilities and while the town’s sports clubs are thriving and have their own facilities, these are not open for general use every day either.
He praised the development of the Leisure Centre as there was no such public facility in Westport up until ten years ago, but said that people used to swim and engage in water sports at The Point at Westport Quay – a tradition that has become extinct despite repeated calls to re-develop the area and the provision of funding for this on two occasions.
“Having a sewerage scheme – the effects of which are dramatically improving water quality at Westport Quay – and a new fire station are great for the town, but not when you are 16 years old and looking for something to do,” Cllr Flynn said. “People need many facilities for recreation today, and when I was growing up in Westport there was much more of these. We have gone backwards in this regard and that is why I am saying we now need to seize the moment and use the development of the convent site as the catalyst to put all this right.”

A ‘one-stop shop’ for the community?


Neill O’Neill


THE 4.4-acre site on Altamont Street is comprised of the large convent residence, an old three-storey school building, and Scoil Pádraig – which is the main primary school in Westport town. There are also smaller buildings, such as the social services centre, and substantial grounds on the site, which straddles the hidden viaduct and goes back towards the Carrowbeg River. None of the buildings is listed for preservation.
The land was given to the Mercy Order by Lord Sligo and was their home for 166 years until last June. Two graveyards are located adjacent to the convent’s chapel, and there are extensive gardens full of trees, flowers and wildlife. The Scoil Pádraig building is not part of the current deal, but this will be revisited once the proposed new primary school has been built by the Department of Education on the Newport Road.
The announcement that the Mercy Sisters were to vacate the convent earlier this year re-ignited a decade-old debate on the future of the site, which many councillors felt would be an ideal ‘one-stop shop’ for public services and organisations in the Westport area. Many councillors saw the convent as the only feasible location where an adequate and future-proof civic centre for the delivery of integrated public services for Westport town and the wider Westport Electoral Area could be developed, and negotiations swiftly got under way behind the scenes, between County Manager Des Mahon, Westport Town Manager Peter Hynes, local councillors and the Mercy Order.
It is now being proposed to develop the site, in partnership, for public services provided by Westport Town Council, Mayo County Council and other statutory bodies who are seeking accommodation in Westport – which effectively means it will be similar to the new civic centre in Belmullet, though probably not in building design.

POSSIBLE AMENITIES

Civic Offices
The main building on the site will be the new home for Westport Town Council and an area headquarters for Mayo County Council. Since 2002 Westport Town Council has been renting accommodation across from the train station on Altamont Street which has been costing around €100,000 annually. This is being shared with staff from Mayo County Council.
A decision to leave the former UDC offices on Castlebar Street was taken many years ago when the Urban District Council outgrew its home of many decades – the former vocational school beside PJ Kelly’s yard. At this time the Mayo County Council offices on the first floor of the courthouse building across the street were also deemed inadequate, and the decision to amalgamate the two was taken. Apart from office space for the different departments attached to each of the local authorities, and a purpose-built chamber to facilitate official meetings and civic receptions, it has also been suggested that the development should incorporate extra meeting rooms to accommodate the other voluntary and community groups in the area who have no permanent home. Cllr Margaret Adams also wants the Ernie O’Malley art collection housed in the new building. O’Malley’s son, US attorney Cormac, has offered the collection to his father’s native county.

Library
According to Branch Librarian in Westport, Keith Martin, the library has a leaking roof, no public toilets and a shortage of parking. Mr Martin – who is also a Westport town councillor – added that the building does not have enough space to house exhibitions or a dedicated history section, is lacking in study spaces and research areas containing archives of local newspapers on microfilm, and while new stock does come to the library, other books must first be removed to make room for these.
The Public Library in Westport opened in a purpose-built facility at the head of St Mary’s Crescent in the early seventies after leaving its original home in the Town Hall. Currently, the library has a staff of three, is a fifth the size of Castlebar Library, and has 3,000 members compared with about 7,000 in the county town.

Town Hall
While the need for a theatre and large community auditorium in the centre of town will remain, the now closed Westport Town Hall also served as home for many clubs and organisations in the latter decades of the last century and was one of the most important buildings in the area.
Bought by the parish for £500 in 1902, and vested in the care of the Church, the Westport Town Hall Restoration Committee was formed five years ago to secure the funding necessary for essential works on what is one of the town’s landmark buildings. It is believed that some progress has been made in this area.
Recently, the hall, which is owned by the parish and held in trust by the Diocese of Tuam, was closed as its state of disrepair diminished to a point where it was felt it posed a risk to health and safety.
The Town Hall was home to such organisations as the badminton, snooker, bowls, cards, table tennis, bingo and drama clubs. With their base falling down around them, many have disbanded while others, such as the Country Markets, have sought out, and moved to, new homes. Westport Town Band also had its headquarters in the Town Hall for years, and it has been suggested that this once flourishing troupe might thrive again if it were to be accommodated in a new civic centre.