On April Fool's Day, 2015, Center Parcs announced the largest tourism investment in Ireland. In the least touristy county.
Longford’s status as a tourism destination was reflected in the Lonely Planet guide to Ireland which devoted seven paragraphs out of 750 pages to a county it politely dismissed as a “quiet place of low hills and pastoral scenes. It has few tourist sights”.
A recent tourism survey conducted by Fáilte Ireland ranked it bottom of the 26 counties in the Republic with just 26,000 visitors a year – a figure that will increase 10-fold after Center Parcs opens this weekend.
When the UK holiday operator declared it was going to invest €233 million at Newcastle Wood outside Ballymahon four years ago, many thought it was a joke in keeping with the date of the announcement.
"It was always that attitude – Jesus, who'd want to go to Longford?" recalled Jackie White of the Ballymahon Traders Alliance. "Around that time, there was a few documentaries about Longford, ghost estate developments and Section 23 properties. There were so many investment developments built and left to go to rack and ruin."
A sign at the entrance four kilometres out of Ballymahon welcomes visitors to Center Parcs Longford Forest, but the passing visitor seeking a glimpse of this Shangri-la in the Irish midlands will be disappointed. The resort itself is screened by some hefty coniferous trees.
Out of sight it might be, but it is on everyone’s mind in Longford as it gets ready to open its doors to visitors on Monday.
Prior to the building of the holiday village, Ballymahon's tourism offering consisted of fishing and kayaking on the River Inny and its association with the novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith who was born outside the town. Worth seeing, as Samual Johnson once said of the Giant's Causeway, but not worth going to see.
The stately main street, one of the widest in Ireland, does not seem to have changed much since Center Parc’s seismic announcement, but there has already been a transformation in the town’s infrastructure to cope with what is effectively a new town on its doorstep.
Ballymahon is now connected to the gas network as a consequence of the development, water mains have been replaced and the stretch of road to the resort has been upgraded. Plans are afoot to improve the roads and footpaths in the town with the introduction of cyclist facilities.
James O'Meara of O'Meara's Auctioneers in Ballymahon has sold a 12-acre site outside the town to a developer who is seeking planning permission to build 102 houses. The application from Northern Ireland-based developer Brian Rogers, which has been lodged with Longford County Council, is the surest sign that others see the long-term economic potential of the area with the holiday village employing 900 people locally.
The announcement four years ago had an immediate impact on a moribund property market. “I sold the same apartment for €20,000, then for €40,000 and the third time for €60,000 in the space of 18 months,” said Mr O’Meara.
The problem, as his fellow estate agent Ms White points out, was the glut of properties in Longford after the crash. Oversupply was most acute in the Shannon-side counties of Roscommon, Leitrim and Longford where tax incentives provoked a frenzy of building during the boom.
Longford was particularly badly affected. An inventory of ghost estates in 2010 found 128 in the county had not yet been completed. “We had over 100 properties. Three-bed semis were €50,000, about 70 per cent below the cost of construction,” Ms White remembers. “Even then you couldn’t give them away. Nobody wanted to know.”
House prices have more than doubled in Ballymahon since the Center Parcs announcement, from an average of €55,000 to about €130,000.
There have been major efforts by Longford County Council to deal with its so-called ghost estates. Of the 128 unfinished housing estates in 2010, 109 have been completed and formally taken in charge by the council. The remaining 19 estates have site resolution plans in place and they are currently being implemented. Six of these will be taken in charge later this year.
The can-do spirit generated by the building of the family-oriented, forest themed holiday village has spread to the rest of the county. Last week Longford Chamber of Commerce hosted a “Build Brand Longford” launch. Locals are being encouraged to be ambassadors for the county and to sell its virtues. Longford’s midlands location used to be a bar to visitors as they headed for more picturesque coastal areas. Now its geographical location is the key reason why Center Parcs’s chose to base itself there.
In 2017, Longford launched a tourism strategy and this year the county had a presence for the first time at Meitheal, Fáilte Ireland’s international showcase. The county has taken soundings from Center Parcs management on how to retain many of the visitors travelling to Longford.
Chamber president Niamh Donlon says the psychological impact of Center Parcs on the county has been "huge" and it has emboldened local tourism-related businesses. The chamber is in the process of putting together a loyalty card and discounts for employees of Center Parcs. To date, 55 businesses have joined up. It is hoped to spread the same loyalty card to the resort's visitors. "For the first time we will have 2,000-plus people saying they are holidaying in Longford each week. It is changing the narrative, the perception and it is worth an absolute fortune in marketing for us," she said.
Separately, there are plans to build the first living model of a Norman village at Granard, the largest extant Norman motte in Ireland. The €3.5 million project is a significant tourism investment and was first mooted in 2012 when locals realised "there's a huge amount of history and nobody telling the story", according to Paul Flood of Granard Motte Community Enterprise. "Center Parcs is going to make a huge difference, 20 per cent of visitors to Center Parcs will come from Northern Ireland. They will be going right by our door."
Other steps have been taken to enhance the county's tourism offering – the Knights and Conquest centre in Granard has already opened; a section of the Royal Canal greenway from Abbeyshrule to Longford, the Midir and Etain walk from Ardagh to Brí Leith is being launched on Sunday, and Edgeworthstown now has a literary trail.
The county has benefited from being under the umbrella of Fáilte Ireland’s Hidden Heartland’s initiative to draw in more tourists to the midlands. “You have the real Ireland down here,” Mr Flood said. “There’s no airs and graces about us.”