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Connacht Tribune

Small towns fight for future

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A study by the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland recently warned that unless urgent action was taken by Galway County Council as well as the Government, the decimation of regional towns already on their knees would be irrevocable.

Increased costs, out of town shopping centres, the dissolution of town councils and high vacancy rates had all contributed to a ‘perfect storm’ for Galway’s town centres.

In order to stop small towns from dying, Galway County Council should restrict out of town shopping centres and restore residential use to high streets while high-speed broadband and a tax on owners of derelict properties to force them back into use was ill also be vital if hundreds of small towns are to stop dying.

The report entitled ‘Rejuvenating Ireland’s small-town centres’ focused on 200 towns – including Clifden, Moycullen, Barna, Athenry, Gort, Loughrea, Ballinasloe and Tuam.

It highlighted the negative impact on small towns from the rapid growth of online retail sales and the increasing urbanisation of the population.

The report presented nothing that the Government did not already know – and the experience is much the same across the water.

Guardian newspaper journalist Simon Jenkins predicted that with high-street footfall shrinking by a tenth every year, “they will soon simply vanish”.

While French towns protected their high streets with new infrastructure and control over retail use forcing the likes of tobacconists, butchers and chemists to remain as they are, out-of-town development has benefited from free parking, new roads and low taxes.

“The key is to look not at what is dying in the high street, but what is living.

“High-street shops that are now doing well are hair and beauty salons, coffee bars, fast-food outlets, health and convenience stores. Farmers’ markets are booming. As rents fall, charity shops selling “pre-loved” goods move in. All of this is called the “experience economy”.

He points out that a decade ago bookshops were closing by the week but owners fought back to create more traditional library-style zones. The likes of Waterstones is turning a profit while online retailing giant Amazon has come full circle is building a chain of bookshops across America.

A report on a new pilot scheme where councils were given €100,000 to rejuvenate six town centres is due out in January.

And it could prove a ground-breaker, believes Sean Canney, the minister of state at the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment with responsibility for natural resources, community affairs and digital development.

“This pilot was looking at unoccupied buildings, houses, retail units and how to get these back into use. There are different solutions for different areas – it’s not a one-size fits all,” he reflects.

“But I’m convinced myself there has to be a carrot approach; an incentive for owners to renovate properties in town centres for residential or retail to encourage a young family to move in or a business to set up – or indeed sell it on.

“I’m also in favour of a VAT refund to first time buyers to do up a place as a family home. What we need is housing and that will all help to bring life back into our towns.”

The Rural Regeneration Fund will be another mechanism to bring back footfall to rural Galway, he insists.

The new BIA Innovator campus at Teagasc in Athenry which his department has put €2.6 million towards has the potential to create 230 jobs in the first three years.

Tourism projects at Portumna Castle, Knockma Hill near Belclare, Ballyglunin, the Moate walk in Loughrea and the boardwalk from Dunguaire Castle into Kinvara will all serve to encourage visitors to stay longer in rural Galway and spend money.

When it comes to Tuam, Minister Canney believes the granting of planning permission for Aldi on the site of Glynn’s Hardware will prove a huge boost for all retailers in the town.

“It will bring footfall back into the heart of the town where we have great shops, boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants,” he predicted.

The investment by Tuam’s biggest employer Valeo – which employs 1,050 directly with another 150 subcontracted – will reap rewards by the granting of a licence by the Government to allow testing on public roads by autonomous or driverless cars.

“What we need now is housing for the workers. Planning permission was granted last year for 140 houses on the Ballygaddy Road and Galway County Council got approval for nearly 50 homes at Tirboy.

“If Galway County Council goes ahead with the centralised treatment plants in the satellite towns of Corofin, Abbyknockmoy, Craughwell, people will be able to buy homes €100,000 cheaper than in the likes of Oranmore – the only town they’re building houses at the minute – but at €300,000 to €400,000 each they’re not affordable.”

Lisa King, spokesperson for the Clifden Chamber of Commerce, says most retailers benefited from having an extra festival this year to celebrate the centenary of Alcock and Brown.

“It was massive for us. We had people from Canada, the UK, Australia and got a huge amount of worldwide media coverage. All the hotels were full, all events organised were packed. We hope to make it an annual event over a weekend,” explains Lisa, who runs King’s Paper and Gift Shop on Clifden’s Main Street.

She said the Chamber is working on how to encourage visitors to stay longer and spend money by organising discounts for tour groups across the retailers. They plan to meet with tour operators and bus drivers to ask about allowing tours to stay longer in the town and browse the shops.

This year’s Christmas shopping spree was much the same as last year, although some retailers have noticed more people are opting to visit the shops rather than shop online.

“I think the online shopping is not hurting as much. People are more appreciative of the personal touch where assistants can help you pick out presents, gift wrap. You can’t go on social media without seeing notices urging people to shop local and I do think it’s making a difference.”

Former County mayor and local councillor Eileen Mannion believes it has been a fairly good year for local businesses but locals are still choosing to head for the lights of Galway for their Christmas shopping.

“We’re lucky that people travel from all over to go to Lidl and Aldi for their groceries but the retail shops are suffering,” she remarks.

But there is a largely positive sentiment going into 2020 with the European City of Culture expected to benefit the whole county.

“We have a fire ceremony on February 2 kicking things off for the opening ceremony and there will be an installation at Derrygimlagh. I’d be very optimistic we’d have a good year. And we also had the welcome announcement that Clifden has received destination funding of €500,000 to improve junctions and facilities for bikes and walkers.”

Loughrea Chamber of Commerce brought the Twelve Days of Christmas promotion back which created great momentum. The Chamber also worked with Galway East Food Movement to bring a Christmas Market along with the turning on of the lights.

“It was the biggest turnout in years. Santa arrived with the key for the townhall – finally granted funding – which has been long awaited,” exclaims chairperson Ciara Shields.

Retailer Ronan Dervan of Dervan’s Fashions reports a very up and down year for retail in the town. The closure of one of the longest standing retailers Staunton’s Drapery was a big blow.

“Anecdotally it appears there may also be a decline in footfall in the town at stages during the year with people perhaps choosing to be more frugal with their money, while also opting to spend their hard-earned money on experiences and family outings instead of retail therapy,” he opines.

“With the ever-present competition of online, 2019 has been one of the more challenging years. But more and more people from surrounding hinterlands are now making a conscious effort to shop local creating opportunity for us retailers to dovetail our products with their needs.

“Another very pleasing factor this year has been the willingness by all the retailers to participate in events such as Fiver Fridays and the Chamber of Commerce 12 Days of Christmas Promotion with customers from all over the county and further afield, as could be seen by some the entrants to the Christmas draw.”

Martin Fahy Menswear had a similar experience, declaring 2019 definitely not a bumper year.

“Brexit has been a drag on consumer confidence in general. And the farming community are reeling from poor price in beef as well as the uncertainty of Brexit,” Martin reflects.

Connacht Tribune

Schools and colleges in Galway advised to close for Storm Barra

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Schools in Galway have begun informing parents that they will not open tomorrow, following advice from the Department of Education.

The Dept said this evening that schools, colleges and universities in areas where a Status Orange or Red warning apply for Storm Barra should not open.

A spokesperson said: “Met Éireann has advised that there is a strong possibility that the status of parts of these counties currently in Status Orange are likely to change and escalate to Status Red.

“Due to the significant nature of Storm Barra, as forecast by Met Éireann and to give sufficient notice to institutions of further and higher education, the department is advising that all universities, colleges and further education facilities covered by the Red Alert and Orange warning from Met Éireann should not open tomorrow, 7 December.

“All schools and third level institutions should keep up-to-date with the current weather warnings which are carried on all national and local news bulletins and in particular any change in the status warning for their area.”

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Connacht Tribune

Galway Gardaí: ‘Stay at home during Storm Barra’

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Gardaí in Galway have warned people to stay home tomorrow (Tuesday) as Met Éireann forecasted a ‘risk to life’ ahead of Storm Barra’s expected landfall tomorrow morning.

At a meeting of the City Joint Policing Committee (JPC), Council Chief Executive Brendan McGrath said the City Council was preparing for the ‘high probability’ of coastal flooding.

A combination of tomorrow’s high tides with the forecast high winds and heavy rainfall would likely lead to a flooding event, he said.

Chief Superintendent Tom Curley said the best advice available was to stay at home but refused to comment on school closures – advising that was a matter for the Department of Education.

Mr McGrath said a number of meetings between local and national agencies had already taken place, with more set to run throughout the day as preparations got underway for this winter’s first severe weather event.

“High tide is at 6.45am tomorrow morning and at 7.20pm tomorrow evening. There is currently a Red Marine Warning in place for the sea area that includes Galway and an Orange Storm Warning for Storm Barra for 6am Tuesday morning to 6am on Wednesday morning,” said Mr McGrath, adding that it was possible this storm warning could be raised to Red later today.

With high tide at 5.45 metres and a forecast storm surge of 1.05m, the risk of flooding was significant. In addition, winds were currently forecast to be South-West to West, said Mr McGrath, conducive to a flooding event in the city.

“It is potentially problematic . . . the hope would be that the storm surge doesn’t happen at the same time as high tide,” he added.

The flood protection barrier had been installed at Spanish Arch over the weekend and storm gullies had been cleaned. Sandbags were to be distributed throughout the day, said Mr McGrath.

Council staff would be on duty throughout the weather event and Gardaí would be operating rolling road closures from early morning. Carparks in Salthill were closed today, while tow trucks were on standby to remove any vehicles not moved by their owners before the high-risk period.

Chief Supt Curley said it was imperative people stayed home where possible.

The best way to say safe was to “leave the bicycle or the car in the driveway” from early tomorrow morning, and to stay indoors until the worst of the storm had passed.

Met Éireann has warned of potential for flooding in the West, with Storm Barra bringing “severe or damaging gusts” of up to 130km/h.

A Status Orange wind warning has been issued for Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Cork from 6am Tuesday to 6am Wednesday, with southerly winds, later becoming northwesterly, with mean speeds of 65 to 80km/h and gusts of up to 130km/h possibly higher in coastal areas.

“High waves, high tides, heavy rain and storm surge will lead to wave overtopping and a significant possibility of coastal flooding. Disruption to power and travel are likely,” Met Éireann said.

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Connacht Tribune

Storm Barra to bring coastal flooding and disruption to Galway

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Met Éireann has warned of potential for flooding in the West on Tuesday, with Storm Barra bringing “severe or damaging gusts” of up to 130km/h.

A Status Orange wind warning has been issued for Galway, Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Cork from 6am Tuesday to 6am Wednesday, with southerly winds, later becoming northwesterly, with mean speeds of 65 to 80km/h and gusts of up to 130km/h possibly higher in coastal areas.

“High waves, high tides, heavy rain and storm surge will lead to wave overtopping and a significant possibility of coastal flooding. Disruption to power and travel are likely,” Met Éireann said,

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