Cllr. Pio Smith (right) with guest speakers David Fitzsimons of Retail Excellence Ireland (left) and architect Simon Wall of Mayo County Council (2nd from right) and his Labour Party colleagues Michelle Hall, Senator Ged Nash and Dominic Hannigan at the meetign to discuss the future development of Drogheda in the Westcourt Hotel.
The conversation about how to breathe life back into the heart of Drogheda has become centre stage in recent months and a meeting which took place in the Westcourt Hotel has advanced that conversation considerably.
The meeting, which was called by Councillor Pio Smith, was a lively and very well attended affair, a mix of advice from inspirational speakers, input from local representatives and traders, and quite a bit of complaining about the lack of action from the local authority.
In his introduction Cllr. Smith said that the commercial centre of Drogheda had changed out of all recognition mainly due to the competition from out of town retail parks and more and more people shopping on line.
He said that Irish on line shoppers were the fifth biggest spenders in Europe and the consequences of this could threaten the viability of towns such as Drogheda because, if retail fails it takes the money from rent and rates out of the local economy.
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“The (shop) vacancy rate in Drogheda is 40%, which is enormous” he said. “In Europe 5% is seen as a danger signal.”
The first guest speaker of the night, David Fitzsimons, the CEO of Retail excellence Ireland, said that the problems afflicting Drogheda were by no means unique but he warned traders against being negative and blaming the council or anyone else.
He challenged Drogheda shopkeepers to be proactive and to be different, to make their shops stand out by being colourful, attractive and inviting.
“There are lots of great stores in Drogheda” he said, “but, I’m sorry, very few of them would make you want to stop and look.”
On the subject of town revival Mr. Fitzsimons said that too many towns were asking how to get visitors into their shops when they should be concentrating on attracting local customers back.
“Improve the offer for locals and you will soon have people turning right into Drogheda as opposed to left and out the road to shop in Blanchardstown or wherever” he said.
He instanced the case of Waterford where retailers are working together to improve their appeal and it is paying huge dividends.
Making town centres better places in which to live, visit and to do business is of course the job of town planners and architects and the next speaker, Simon Wall, a senior architect with Mayo Council, gave a fascinating and inspirational address.
Wall has won many awards for the work he and his team have done in Westport and to see the transformation shown in his slides was amazing.
His first advice to Drogheda was to create a Town design statement on how we want to see the town developing over the next 20 years and to get it right from the start.
“Planning is so important to get right because it stays there for generations” he said. “Mayo County council is in the process of making design statements for every town and village in the county.”
He said that the thing to do is to take one project from the Town design statement (Drogheda has the “Westgate Vision” plan) and get it finished.
“Once people see the benefits it will be easier to get the funding for stage two and subsequent stages of the plan. Success begins to cascade upon success” he said.
Some of the issues that he had to face in Westport, and many of them are all still very evident in Drogeda, were an excess of signage which he described as “almost like an invasive species of plant”; roller shutters which are now banned in Westport because they serve as a blank canvas to graffiti “artists”; putting overhead cables underground, widening pavements.
He puts huge emphasis on planting – flowers on traffic roundabouts and in open spaces as well as trees to break the hard lines of streetscapes.
Perhaps the biggest issue for Wall though is the ongoing struggle against what he calls the “motor car invasion” to give the street back to pedestrians.
“Towns are for people not for cars” he said and that ethos has informed much of the work he has done in Westport.
He has pedestrianised as many streets as he can and convinced the local authority and Westport’s shopkeepers to allow him develop land that was vacant behind businesses as parking areas connected by pedestrian walkways.
He says that only 5% of his time is spent in design work. The other 95% is spent talking and consulting with members of the public and with businesses about how they want their town to develop. The results are just amazing and this from a town that has a quarter of the population of Drogheda.
Mr. Wall closed by reiterating his advice for a town design statement and saying: “positivity is essential, you can change the future but not the past and you can only change the future by being positive.”
The floor was then thrown open to the floor for discussion and there were several offers of support for the ideas put forward from various election candidates.
Other speakers referred to what one called the “toxic” relationship the County Chief Executive with Drogheda and calling for a return to Drogheda being run by its own town manager.
Another suggested that local election candidates should pledge themselves to working together for the good of the town. “We want team Drogheda representing us” he said.
Ending off the debate Senator Ged Nash said that all the ideas voiced on the night needed to be brought together into a plan.
“We need a coherent plan and to get serious about our built heritage. If we don’t have the plans we won’t get the investment to allow Drogheda to achieve its potential.”
Anyone interested can download ‘A Framework for Town Centre Renewal”
For more about Westport see: destinationwestport.com
This article was written by Andy Spearman