Dundalk locals win the battle to keep the economy of the town they love so well alive

 

Dundalk's proximity to the Border has been a mixed blessing in its commercial life over the last three decades. Nicknamed "El Paso" after conflict erupted in Northern Ireland in 1969, Dundalk has been inextricably associated with the Troubles in the public imagination.

In recent years, as the shopping and administrative capital of the North-East received a series of body blows with factory lay offs and closures, the influx of sterling rich shoppers from nearby Newry in Co Down has helped cushion the impact - although that business was adversely impacted by the foot and mouth crisis from which it is only now beginning to recover.

The town's Border status has meant that it has benefitted from grants from the International Fund for Ireland. Its economy has been one of ebb and flow - up to six years ago motorists went north to get petrol, now that situation has reversed.

Ultimately, its geographical location has proven a disadvantage, says local retailer Brian O'Neill, who owns R Q O'Neill's hardware store on Earl Street.

He believes Dundalk has been treated by the Government and sections of the media as "the pariah of the country", which has impacted on its tourism industry, the funding of the infrastructure and the level of inward investment.

"Dundalk is looked upon differently to any other town in Ireland by civil servants, the Government and the media because it is so close to the Border. We have had to fight an uphill battle to redress the situation."

The battle is being slowly won. "In the last couple of years in spite of this and thanks to the efforts of townspeople, local government and the county manager, John Quinlivan, we have seen our footpaths upgraded, there is an abundance of flower beds, we are getting our road infrastructure right, the centre of the town has been upgraded and our train service has been improved."

Former US President Bill Clinton's visit last December was welcomed by locals, in part, for the unusually positive press coverage it generated and the fact that to Clinton, Dundalk was first and foremost the home town of the Corrs.

"When journalists write about Dundalk it is invariably something to do with the violence," says O'Neill.

The town is still playing catch up after the foot and mouth crisis, says Rod Bond, President of the Chamber of Commerce.

"As the gateway town to the Cooley Peninsula, the restrictions hammered our tourism, leisure and hotel activities and also our retail sector. On the tourism side businesses have been running promotions to get people back to the area but from a retail point of view it's been more a matter of waiting it out.

The restrictions on the town and county area meant that people had to change their shopping patterns. Many stayed local or went elsewhere to places like Drogheda.

Things are gradually getting back to normal and the town is beginning to reap the benefits of the renewed flood of Northern shoppers.

Amid the twists and turns of Dundalk's fortunes, one factor that has remained constant over the decades is the high percentage of locally-owned business in the town.

On Clanbrassil Street - the main shopping street - alone there are three businesses whose shopfronts time has virtually left untouched, Boyles china shop, Deareys general drapery and Modern Fashions - which was renovated in the 1960s with a snazzy glassy front.

The dominance of local business is both "good and bad" says Brian O'Neill.

"We need the right mix of independent retailers and multiple stores. Outside retailers didn't come to Dundalk to begin with and local business has become stronger. We will survive alongside them if they do come in.

"And while we need both, local business is the future. The indigenous stores add vibrancy whereas the multiple-owned stores don't tend to contribute to the life of a town."

Dundalk's industrial tradition began to fall into decline in the 1970s .The numbers registered as unemployed jumped from just 616 people in 1968 to over 5,000 a decade later as the traditional industries of footwear, clothing, engineering, tobacco and brewing went into decline.

The Great Northern Railway had closed, Rawsons shoe factory closed and Clarks scaled down to warehouse operations.

One local remembers that while there was not "very severe poverty, there were limited means. When the conflict in Northern Ireland started, there were a solid body of existing residents who viewed the 'El Pas' and 'Bandit Country' references as gross slander."

Dundalk's industry is dominated by small business with 85 per cent employing less than 50 people each, according to a Dundalk Chamber of Commerce statistic.

The recent closure of the McArdle Moore brewery, whose workers earned comparatively high wages, and the news that £180 million (€228m) Xerox Technology Village would not be providing the 2,000 jobs anticipated have been huge setbacks to the town.

"The town recognises it has been hit very badly by unemployment and Border problems but it is gearing itself towards full unemployment, the right kind of jobs and strong indigenous growth," says Rod Bond.

"Dundalk Institute of Technology is one of our key assets for the service it contributes to the technology capabilities of the town."

High-tech electronics industries, manufacturing and food processing are among the main employers in the town outside the services industry.

According to Bond, the Dunleer and Castlebellingham bypasses have made "a huge difference" to access to the town.

"One bottleneck that still has to be sorted is Drogheda; once that is done, the world will be a much better place. We need to look at Western access to Monaghan and Cavan. The infrastructure is very poor, which makes it very difficult to access that catchment area. and to grow businesses in that direction."

On the residential housing front, things are slow, says auctioneer Philip Gunne. "We are experiencing a lull like every other part of the country. First-time buyer houses costing between £120,000 and £140,000 (€152,368-177,763) are taking a while to go but those under £110,000 (€139,671) are doing better. We had homes in Blackrock where two-bed terraced houses were £78,500 (€99,674) and three-beds £89,500 (€113,641) and they were sold out in a few days. " He also reckons second-hand homes have dropped in value by 10 to 12 per cent.

Dundalk will not become part of the Dublin commuter belt any time soon, says Gunne.

"Drogheda and Dundalk are like two different countries; we are midway between the two capitals but it is still 25 miles extra for people to travel from Dublin."