Sligo out to resurrect fortunes after post-Celtic Tiger implosion

Like so many other places in State ‘capital of northwest’ lost run of itself during boom

O’Connell Street in Sligo is set to be reordered in an attempt to afford more space to pedestrians. Photograph: James Connolly

O’Connell Street in Sligo is set to be reordered in an attempt to afford more space to pedestrians. Photograph: James Connolly

Mon, Feb 24, 2014, 07:26

Sligo rightly sees itself as the “capital of the northwest”, easily outpacing Enniskillen. With a royal charter granted in 1613, it defines itself as a “city” even though the population within the perfect circle that marks the urban boundary is fewer than 20,000 – a far cry from the European threshold of 100,000 for city status.

Designated as a development “gateway” under the 2002 National Spatial Strategy (NSS), Sligo has significant strengths – not least its unrivalled topographical setting, with Ben Bulben on one side and Knocknarea on the other, and the fast-flowing Garavogue river sweeping right through the town centre.

Borough architect Seán Martin notes that Sligo experienced a “dramatic period of change in the 19th century when our port, which could then be considered the equivalent of an international airport, was bringing trade, farming materials, plant, stock, coal and timber to and from Sligo”, generating local prosperity.

Much of this wealth was invested in fine buildings such as Sligo courthouse, the Town Hall, bank branches such as the superb Victorian Italianate Ulster Bank at Hyde Bridge, the Model School that lives on as the Niland Gallery and the former St Columba’s mental asylum, which is now an unusual Clarion Hotel.

Like so many other places in Ireland, though, Sligo lost the run of itself during the boom years. Hugely optimistic population projections were made and large tracts of land on the outskirts were rezoned for residential development.

Crazy prices were paid, even by the local authority, for land in areas such as Bellinode.

In town, river walks were laid out along both sides of the Garavogue, lined by new apartment buildings and old warehouses with cafes and shops at quay level. The old Silver Swan Hotel, at Hyde Bridge, was replaced by an angular glazed prow-like structure, The Glasshouse, Hotel, with a vacant eight-storey apartment block alongside it.

The N4 dual-carriageway was driven through the town centre, isolating Sligo’s cathedral from the railway station, and the envisaged “streetscape” along its length – intended to present a new face of Sligo – never materialised. Neither did the Treasury Holdings plan for a major shopping centre on the Wine Street car park.

Everything began to implode.

The twice-daily scheduled Aer Arann air service to and from Dublin ceased operating three years ago after its PSO (public service obligation) subsidy was withdrawn. Passenger numbers had plummeted to 26,000 a year – and it turned out that the subsidy was costing taxpayers €95 for each passenger.

On the plus side, Strandhill Airport – owned 50 per cent by Sligo County Council – is still the base for an Irish Coast Guard Search and Rescue helicopter and it is used regularly to fly out fresh shellfish to France.

The Dublin-Sligo rail service has also been improved, with trains now running frequently, and more is promised.

Unlike Limerick, there is no specific new vision or strategy for Sligo once its county and borough councils merge, other than the current Sligo County Development Plan (2011-2017) and the borough’s Sligo and Environs development plan (2010-2016). These will no doubt be reconciled after the councils become a single authority.

Even though the borough did not have an independent corporation, Seán Martin believes that it will “not be so challenging to make transition” because there is not another big urban centre in the county; the new municipality of North Sligo would largely consist of the urban area and satellites from Ballysadare to Rosses Point.

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