Simon Harris, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and Peter Burke, Minister of State for Local Government and Planning.

Hi-tech third level facility for Columb Barracks

Mullingar is set to get its first dedicated third level educational facility after Columb Barracks was chosen as the base for a new hi-tech national centre of excellence for electrical vehicle (EV) management.

The multi-million euro centre of excellence, which will be operated by Solas in conjunction with Longford Westmeath ETB, will provide training in all aspects of EV management and will attract trainees from across the country.

While few details about the project have been finalised yet, it is known that it will be based in sections of the old barracks.

Speaking to the Westmeath Examiner yesterday morning, Minister of State Peter Burke said that following Minister for Further Education Simon Harris’s recent visit to the barracks, he had secured a commitment to base the Solas centre of excellence there.

Details are still being worked out in relation to the works to be completed, the numbers of employees and the timelines, but Solas are soon to meet with the CEO of Longford Westmeath ETB to work on operational plans.

Minister Burke said the centre of excellence will not only provide the redeveloped barracks with an anchor tenant, “it will also breath life back into site”. He also predicted that there will be a significant spinoff for the local economy.

“This is very positive news for Mullingar and an issue I have been working on for some time. The barracks has a rich heritage and it’s important for our community it does not fall into long-term disuse.

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“I organised a meeting through my department with the LDA, Minister Harris, all the educational stakeholders such as the ETB, Solas, Mullingar Chamber and various community groups to highlight the usefulness of the site and the opportunities it could provide.

“The LDA are to create new housing on the site, but it was never the intention to use the entire site for housing and there should be a good mix due to the scale of the site and its prime location.

“Mullingar has a skilled workforce and great transport links, so an educational facility would be well situated in the town and I am glad that now we have secured a commitment for this.

“I also stressed to Minister Harris, the LDA and to Solas that there must be a community dividend here and space provided for the voluntary groups, and there was agreement on that.

“Electric vehicles are becoming more and more popular, and there is the aim of having one million on the road by 2030, which would need a huge increase in the coming years. There will need to be high levels of upskilling from both industry and in management, and it’s my hope that Mullingar will soon be the nationwide base synonymous with this.

“I look forward to working with Solas and to see these plans taking shape. Minister Harris has made significant inroads in apprenticeships since he took on his role in higher education; we have seen that the number of those registered for apprenticeships with Solas jumped from 5,326 in 2020 to 8,607 last year under his tenure, and he is targeting 10,000 annually and providing increased subsidies to employers and apprentices.

“The barracks is full of history, and many of our family members, going back generations, worked from there in historic times. I look forward to the site seeing the return of people and activity and creating new opportunities for current and future generations.”

The news has also been welcomed by John Geoghegan, president of Mullingar Chamber and a member of the Columb Barracks Advisory Group. He says that the establishment of a third level education facility in Mullingar is “massive” for the town.

“This is once in a hundred years opportunity for Mullingar to advance with a dedicated centre of excellence for training in the electric vehicle space. This is a fascinating outcome where a location of such historical importance can potentially accommodate a user which will play such a leading role in all our transportation futures, the electric vehicle. Past meets present meets future.

“None of this would have been possible without the outstanding leadership and encouragement shown by Minister Peter Burke in advancing with this project. His understated, always straightforward, direct, no-nonsense and constructive approach to dealing with matters and putting the business of business ahead of his own promotion, speaks volumes of his character and professionalism in his role as government minister.

“Mullingar and Longford Westmeath are fortunate to have such a high calibre government minister in our constituency, and this project is testament to his outstanding work and the engagement of all stakeholders and businesses in the town and environs including Mullingar Chamber in advancing with this project.

“I look forward to seeing the project advance to the next stages and remain committed to this and the other priorities at this location, housing, historical preservation and the community uses. To this end I strongly encourage a high level of involvement and commitment by Westmeath County Council in exploring and availing of all available funding opportunities this might attract through their support,” he said.