'We are here to drive the town forward'
It has been a challenging but highly productive year for Mullingar Chamber of Commerce, according to its president.
The voluntary organisation, which promotes Mullingar as attractive destination to live in, work in and visit, has increased its membership by more than 50 per cent since the start of 2021, despite the difficulties posed by the worst public health crisis in a century.
Reviewing the last 12 months, chamber chairman John Geoghegan said they took a very “strategic and aggressive approach” to increasing membership. Their efforts have not been in vain as chamber membership is now close to 200 up from around 125 at the start of the year.
“It was done through one to one chats, phone calls, approaches and leveraging off what we have done. A lot of people you’d ring would have thought that the chamber was a fuddy-duddy organisation in a back room – but we meet once a month and we go through our list of priorities. We have a full-time office manager. We are here to support businesses and to drive the town forward.”
John says the chamber team spend a lot of time on issues they feel are “really important to the town”, and one of those is the future of Columb Barracks.
The redevelopment of the historic military facility will be one of the key drivers for the future prosperity of the town, John believes. A member of the Columb Barracks Advisory Committee, which was established by the Land Development Agency, he says the barracks would be perfect location for a new national training centre for apprentices, possibly overseen by the TUS Athlone.
Mullingar is one of the last major towns in the country not to have some form of third level facility. John, who recently met Minister for Further Education Simon Harris to discuss the chamber’s proposal, says that this needs to be rectified and that the barracks is the ideal site.
“We think that with Covid-19, things have changed so much. A lot of kids have reconsidered their options and the National Apprenticeship Strategy, which Simon Harris put forward, sees a lot of jobs of the future being delivered through apprenticeships – like the European model.
“You [apprentices] become better because you are learning from your peers and developing good habits. We are hoping to meet the department before Christmas to pitch this. One of the frustrations for companies in this space is that apprentices turn up on site for a couple of months, then they’re gone for a long time. We are trying to drive the agenda where the classroom becomes the building site.
“Experienced training facilitators can go to a site and train five lads for one day a week. We think that barracks could be an anchor for that, and around that, you could have the other uses that are already there, such as the community groups, if it makes sense... You have a courtyard there that could become a concert venue and the old prison area could become a museum. It’s one of the projects that absorbed a lot of time this year.”
John, who is the founder and managing director of Landcorp Private, a real estate asset acquisitions and asset management company, is also the chamber representative on Westmeath County Council’s Economic Development Enterprise and Tourism Strategic Policy Committee (SPC). During the course of the year, the chamber submitted lengthy proposals to the council on both the regeneration of the Blackhall area and the new Westmeath Tourism Strategy 2021-27.
For decades, Mullingar and the rest of Westmeath have had some of the lowest tourism numbers in the country, but the opening of the greenways and Center Parcs at Ballymahon has changed people’s opinions about what the midlands has to offer visitors.
One of the problems that remains, John says, is that many visitors are day trippers. A plan needs to be formulated to give people enough reasons to stay in town for a number of nights.
“The big problem here is that we don’t have dwell times. Tourists stay for half a day. We are trying to figure out things to bring people to the town for longer and the obvious one, I would say, is the lakes.
“Center Parcs would give you a million quid for one of the lakes and we have them for free. There are few amenities on them and they are note really promoted or marketed. The next obvious one is the hotels and then the restaurants, cafés and bars. I try to focus on strategy. We should try to get those three units connected.
“We also think that Belvedere should have a strategic review now. It’s 10 years now that it hasn’t really moved forward. To my mind, it is incredible that an amenity of that standard in that location loses money. We’d love to see them look at something like installing Ireland’s longest zip wire. It would be great craic.
“Another is that Belvedere would become an established concert venue, for something like country music or classical, anything but dance and drug music. Belvedere has enormous potential.”
While he is a proud Mullingar man, one of John’s objectives when he became chamber president in September 2020 was to “flatten out the fight with Athlone, which has been going on for the last 50 years”.
“We agreed to work together on everything, apart from attracting investment, which is the only place that we have a natural conflict of interests,” John says.
The decision to employ a joint front in discussions with the council has proved wise and both organisations have secured funding of €30,000 per annum towards their running costs.
“Each chamber costs about €90k a year to run and each collects only about €40k in subscriptions, a €50k shortfall. We went to the council and said the chambers in each town fulfil important roles: consolidating the businesses in the town and giving them a unified voice. Our position isn’t populist or argumentative, it’s based on logic and what people feel are issues in the town. We also really appreciate the support from the elected members and I have really enjoyed dealing with them. I think there is a high standard of elected representatives in the county.”
John has also enjoyed dealing with Mullingar’s two ministers of state, Robert Troy and Peter Burke, who have worked hard to attract new investment to the town. While economically speaking Athlone is “without a doubt ahead of Mullingar”, John says that plenty of work is being done to bridge the gap.
In the spring, the chamber also received funding from the council to produce the #WeAreMullingar video, which coincided with the easing of restrictions in May and which to date has been watched tens of thousands of times online.
Evolving from the success of the video, the chamber will soon launch a new brand, #Love Mullingar, an initiative that John and his colleagues on the committee are excited about.
“It gets above the message of a local view of a town. It’s more about: ‘We love our town and we have a lot to offer as a town’.”
As part of the initiative, plans are well under way to create a new Instagram friendly feature in the heart of the town, which they are currently in discussions with the council about.
One of the people driving the #LoveMullingar initiative is David Quirke, proprietor of the Wholesome Kitchen restaurant. He is one of a number of new people, including publican and musician Declan Murphy, Cllr Hazel Smyth, Shirley Kiernan (Pharmed) and Darren Holmes (ORS), who joined the board this year. John says the contribution of the new arrivals has helped “spread the load” and give the board a “better ecosystem”.
“These guys are excellent and are so passionate about the town,” he says. “None of this could have happened without the heavy lifting of Tom Hyland before me. Tom did an unbelievable job, reorganising the chamber and getting it ship-shape, as well as putting us in a strong financial position going into Covid. Only for Tom’s work with Ian Kerr and Bridget Manley, that wouldn’t be the case,” he said.
The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but the chamber’s committee members have managed to remain focused on their objectives. From the success of the #WeAreMullingar video to retaining the Purple Flag, as well as the work being done behind the scenes, 2021 has been another good year for the organisation.
One of the few downers for the chamber in 2021, was the cancellation of WinterFest, which was scheduled to take place on the weekend of December 4.
Months of work had gone in to organising the event, which included the return of the Christmas Market to Mount Street – however, rising Covid numbers and other issues meant the chamber was left with little choice but to cancel the event for the second successive year.
“It was absolutely heartbreaking. I got involved with it at the end of October, fairly much on a daily basis for four weeks. I would have spent 100 voluntary hours on it at a time when I was busy with my own work.
“It just became one roadblock after another. In the middle of November, the cases were going up to 6,000 a day, that was a huge issue and in the background the insurance market had shifted. We were hoping to get insurance quotes in from London on it but the quotes that came back were off the charts. It was the perfect storm, and we took the decision that we had to cancel it.
“We put the time and energy in and then it got canned. People have been very understanding. It is sad. We are losing 40,000 visitors and maybe €2m this year, but I think that spend is still there.
“When you talk to drivers, parcel deliveries are not higher than they were last year, which tells me there is a bit more going on in the street. Instead of Amazon, I’m all about ‘Amazoff’ this year – the streets need our support.”
Last Christmas, local people spent more than €250,000 on Mullingar Gift Vouchers, which can be used in around 130 local businesses. John says the chamber is hoping to surpass that this year and the goal is to increase it to €500,000 over the next few years.
“We estimate that the €250,000 is worth around €1m quid to the economy because it is keeping the money in the post code. It creates the sense of locals supporting each other and is lovely gift to give someone. Look at the quality of the shops we have. They are top class. The best of retailers are here.”
Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, John is optimistic about Mullingar’s future economic prospects. The success of local firms such as Steripack and Robotics and Drives is a sign that Mullingar is moving in the right direction, he says.
One of the highlights of the year from an economic perspective, he says, was the announcement by the IDA that it plans to build an advance manufacturing facility at its park in Marlinstown in a bid to attract foreign direct investment to the town, something which the chamber has sought for the best part of a decade. John says that the importance of attracting FDI to the town can’t be overstated.
“That [the advance manufacturing facility] will bring in a large investor occupier. Then we have this cluster model where if one comes in and does it, the second investor fells more comfortable coming in. I know Peter and Robert are pushing this hard and it will transform the Mullingar employment market if you had 200 jobs up there. There is a huge difference in the capital investment that is put into that and pay cheques that come out of it. It will help mature the local economy. We won’t be found wanting as a chamber to drive the agenda,” he said.