Business closures sap energy from heart of Ballinasloe

Apart from the horse fair, there’s very little to keep people in the Galway town

Ballinasloe businessman Gerry Stronge says businesses should get tax breaks to open  up in towns such as Ballinasloe. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Ballinasloe businessman Gerry Stronge says businesses should get tax breaks to open up in towns such as Ballinasloe. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Ballinasloe has two schools of thought: one is optimistic, the other is not. The optimistic in the east Galway town hope and believe that a multinational firm will come and open up shop, employing hundreds.

Then there are those who do not believe in magic wands, who believe that the only way forward rests with local start-ups and small businesses.

However, everyone hopes, or prays, for support for new businesses in next Tuesday’s budget.

Ballinasloe is world renowned for its October horse fair, which finishes tomorrow. The oldest such gathering in Europe, it usually attracts about 100,000 visitors from all over the country and overseas, generating around €8 million.

Napoleon’s horse, Marengo, according to local legend, was bought there in 1799. However, 200-year-old myths butter few parsnips today.

Outside of the eight-day fair, Ballinasloe feels it has little to offer. Everywhere, locals lament the loss of one-time large employers Square D, Dubarry and pen-maker AT Cross.

Between them, the three plants, which employed up to 1,000 people, closed between 2000 and 2004. Dubarry still runs a shoe outlet, but its main operations have gone. Another significant employer, St Brigid’s psychiatric hospital – which had at one stage held 1,300 psychiatric patients – closed two years ago after a HSE review.

A town that once had its own jobs has become, largely, a commuter town for Galway city 40 minutes away, or Athlone which is now just 15 minutes eastwards on the motorway. Hundreds of people leave the town daily for work.

The closures have sapped energy from the heart of the town, exacerbated by Tesco’s decision to move to the outskirts of the town, along with the transfer of one of the town’s two secondary schools, Ardscoil Mhuire, which moved outside the town centre more than five years ago.

Today, parking is rarely a problem. “For Sale” signs litter the streets, sometimes in front of unattractive empty shop-fronts. Local enterprise centre manager Lyn Donnelly believes Ballinasloe can improve, but she does not believe in multinational saviours.

“Everyone is [looking] back to the jobs of Square D and they are wondering where is this big new company? But the reality is it’s going to be small numbers of jobs and start-ups.

“We want support for existing and small businesses, not one big business to come in and solve everyone’s problems,” she says.

‘Gone in reverse’

New start-ups must get State support in Tuesday’s budget, she argues.

Pat Ward, the owner of research and development company Western Automation, agrees. Local businesses are “the key to the future”.

Other towns have benefited from the motorways. “Ballinasloe seems to have gone in reverse. People are commuting to get out of Ballinasloe. It’s sad. There is a sense of hopelessness and despair here.”

Unusually in a town that needs jobs, Ward faced a problem when he tried to expand three years ago, since he could not find enough highly skilled electronics and mechanical design engineers. He moved part of his business to Spain.

“People who graduate want to go to the bigger towns. Ballinasloe seems to be a feeder town, feeding people to Athlone and Galway.”

Seamus Duffy, chairman of Ballinasloe Area Community Development (BACD), agrees that the town must move on.

“There is no magic wand if you are outside the main population areas. Sustainability of the existing businesses is key. The businesses want to be in the main areas of population and the young people want to be in the main population centres. I see in all the sports clubs there is a big gap in the 25 to 35-year age group. They are going away. The jobs aren’t there,” he says.

Co-operate better

However, existing businesses must co-operate better than they are doing now. Many have traded for several generations. “It’s hard to get the businesses to buy into the idea that we are like one big shopping centre. They still see themselves as individual shops. We are about the size of Liffey Valley.”

Local businessman Michael Earls of Easyfix – a rubber products supplier – exports to more than 25 countries.

His business is thriving. Unlike some, he believes major industry must be part of the solution.

“The town needs something badly. You drive down the street and shop after shop is closed. There were 1,000 people working in the town at one stage and now there are just around 100.

“It needs a big company to set up in the town. We have to get a big industry into the town. The town is not improving, even with the upturn,” he says. Local businessman Gerry Stronge sees two solutions, both radical. People should be encouraged to relocate from the cities, while businesses should get tax breaks to open up in towns such as Ballinasloe.

“Our biggest problem is we don’t have the footfall. There is a way to sort it. There is a scarcity of houses in Dublin and the major cities. They have to relocate people. Forty-six buses pass through Ballinasloe every day, travelling between Dublin and Galway.

Incentives

“We have the infrastructure, we just don’t have the people. The Government should be creating those incentives for businesses to open in the rural towns,” he adds. One rare local success story was Glanagua, a wastewater company. It started with three employees.

Soon it blossomed, and now employs more than 100 people.

However, expansion brought a challenge. Ballinasloe did not have enough available office space.

Unable to find it where it had begun, Glanagua moved to a greenfield site in Loughrea earlier this year.

More should have been done to keep Glanagua in Ballinasloe, Stronge insists. The IDA should have factories ready to house big employers.

“It should not have gone out of the town. It was a huge loss,” he says.

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