Two of my brothers who have been away from Athy for many years returned last week for a funeral. Their comments on Athy as ‘shabby and run down’ quite frankly shocked me, but made me reflect on whether or not there was any substance in what was said.
Both brothers undoubtedly viewed the town in which they grew up against a long remembered background and perhaps drew comparisons with other towns with which they are familiar. Nevertheless their critical comment gave me cause to look afresh at Athy. While I could not agree with their sweeping criticism, I must admit that the retailing life of the South Kildare town is not in a healthy state. Several businesses have closed down since the start of the New Year and vacant shop premises on our main streets do tend to present evidence of failure and neglect within the commercial life of the town.
The economic mess in which the country finds itself is a major cause of Athy’s retailing woes, but yet last Saturday evening as I drove through Longford town I saw scenes reminiscent of Athy as it was in the 1950s. It has often been claimed that up to the 1950s Athy was the best business town in Leinster. Late night shopping on Saturday nights brought farming folk from as far away as West Wicklow and the town’s busy streets meant good business for the town’s retailers. Longford town last Saturday evening was in sharp contrast to what was to be seen on Athy’s streets that same evening.
The decline of the town’s commercial sector started slowly with the retailing resurgence in the neighbouring towns of Carlow, Newbridge and Portlaoise, all three of which soon outsprinted Athy in terms of shopping services and facilities. Athy stood still as if relying on its glorious past, failing to recognise the danger signs and consequently neglected measures to retain its customer base.
The situation has, I believe, been exacerbated by the failure to proceed with the Outer Relief Road which would have removed through traffic from the town centre and considerably eased day time traffic congestion. Another factor militating against the improvement of town centre shopping was the imposition of parking charges. Brought in ostensibly as a traffic management measure for a limited number of streets in the town, parking fees were later extended to almost every street and laneway in Athy and with an increase in those fees have now truly taken on an income earning role for the local Council. The net effect is to discourage potential customers from coming into Athy to shop.
Another issue which has affected the town’s wellbeing is the absence of leadership in both the civic and commercial spheres. In that regard the limelight must fall on both the Town Council and the local Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber has been particularly disappointing. I realise that its membership is extremely low and that it has not received the support it needs from the commercial or industrial business sectors of the town. However the Chamber must be the lead business organisation in the town and for whatever reason it has failed to give that leadership for many years past.
Most of us at some time or other have complained about the Town Council. It should provide civic leadership and instil in us, and encourage in others, a sense of pride in our town. We have a town which in terms of its physical layout, its buildings and its street vistas is equal to, if not better than, any other urban settlements in the county. The combination of river and canal provide within a unique urban context, a background against which the town could and should develop. But yet the town seems unable to realise its full potential and the post Celtic tiger countrywide recession has pushed the business life of the town further downhill. The Town Council has failed to provide civic leadership which is an essential element of any recovery plan and has done little or nothing to help the hard pressed retailing sector to develop.
Strangely while the commercial life of the town struggles Athy has made great strides in promoting and developing the sporting and cultural side of town life as evidenced by the enormous success of the local G.A.A. Club and the continuing success of the recently opened Arts Centre. Both the G.A.A. Club and the Arts Centre rely on volunteers. Amongst both groups there are many men and women who give of their time, energy and experience to further causes to which they are committed. If the same level of commitment could be given by those involved in the industrial and commercial life of this town, Athy would succeed in arresting the business decline which has been noticed in the South Kildare town for a considerable period of time.