Athy has been slumbering for a decade or more. The town which over the centuries has gone through many cyclical booms and depressions is, I believe, on the cusp of a major revival as it repositions itself in the ever-expanding Irish tourist market. As the County Kildare town with the most attractive town centre it is about to witness a makeover courtesy of the ongoing Emily Square Redevelopment Scheme. This comes in advance of a major restructuring of the local Heritage Centre which last year was granted full museum status by the Irish Heritage Council.
The foresight shown by Kildare County Council in acquiring the Dominican church for redevelopment as a town library releases the entire early 18th century Town Hall for use as a museum of national, if not international importance. The latter status will in time accrue as the Shackleton exhibits added to over the years bring the story of the Kilkea-born polar explorer to a wider audience. The rejuvenated town square will add enormously to the attractiveness of the Shackleton Museum in much the same way as the recently erected Shackleton statue has done.
Athy in the past was never developed or promoted as a tourist destination but with the development of the museum and the plans for the Barrow Blueway along the canal towpath the time has come to look anew at tourism as a key addition to the revival of the town’s fortunes. The tourist boat for hire, berthed at the former town harbour, is a welcome tourist related initiative under the recent Town Regeneration Plan.
The acquisition by Kildare County Council of the Dominican property on the west bank of the River Barrow affords a unique opportunity to use the Dominican riverside field as a facility in connection with the Barrow Blueway. Walkers, cyclists, fishermen and boaters will undoubtedly make greater use than ever before of the River Barrow and the Grand Canal once the Blueway development is finished. It is important therefore that here in Athy we are ready to provide for these visitors and what better way than to develop Blueway orientated facilities at or near the location where the only river and canal juncture in Ireland occurs. Athy, to its advantage, could so easily be developed as an attractive and key stopover on the Barrow Blueway.
The southern bypass or outer relief road is planned to be in place within the next 4 or 5 years. When it comes, it will make a huge difference in terms of town centre traffic. The removal of through traffic especially HGVs and lorries will permit the creation of more pedestrian friendly shopping streets from Augustus bridge to the Railway bridge. Many English towns are witnessing a revival of fortunes with the reopening of independent shops supported by customers who have become disenchanted with the sameness of multinational chain stores. The future for provincial towns, whether in England or in Ireland lies, I believe, in a sensible mixture of independent shops and larger stores, each complimenting each other in town centre locations rather than in out of town shopping centres.
Here in Athy we have an excellent range of parking facilities positioned around the town which if properly managed could support and promote an active retailing town centre. While there is some concern regarding the proposal to remove car parking from the front of Emily Square, such car parking spaces that will be lost can be readily replaced. Why not, I suggest, develop part of the derelict Abbey site as a car park facility, leaving that part of the site adjoining the River Barrow for retail or apartment development? If we hope to develop the tourist potential of the town we must provide adequate car parking facilities which brings me to the contentious issues of car parking fees. It is accepted that the revenue generated by parking fees is one of the many funding sources needed by Kildare County Council and must therefore be retained. However I would hope for a more imaginative and shopping friendly system of parking fees. Shopkeepers pay rates and their customers deserve some consideration in terms of parking facilities. Why not allow the first hour parking to be free and while doing so encourage more people to shop in the town centre and by doing so support the independent shopkeepers.
Retailing is the heartbeat of a town centre. It must be encouraged in much the same way as tourists coming into or through Athy have to be encouraged to stop and share the local experiences. The Barrow Blueway, the Shackleton Museum, and could I hope to dream, the development of a Fitzgerald Museum in the White Castle could catapult Athy into the forefront of the tourism industry in County Kildare.