Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The shifting sands of Athy's economic life

The large attendance at the Blueway meeting held in the Town Library on Tuesday evening was a heartening reminder that the people of Athy are alive to the huge opportunities which can follow the development of this waterway project. I have seldom witnessed a greater involvement by the general public with any public realm project and the hope is that the project will move ahead without any great delay. The shifting sands of our town’s economic life has seen the once great market town which was largely dependent on its rich agricultural hinterland glide into an unhealthy state where shops and factories have closed. Athy’s fate in that regard is no different than that of many other provincial towns in Ireland and in neighbouring England and Wales. Urban streetscapes throughout all of these countries display an increasing number of vacant premises and charity shops. The loss of business can be attributed to many reasons including internet trading, property charges and the rise of the out of town shopping centres providing free parking for their customers. The traditional town centre which is now slowly but surely losing its primacy as a shopping centre for local needs must now adjust to meet the changing retail world. I was in Hay-on-Wye last week, a small town with a population of approximately 2,000, located on the Marches between England and Wales. In that respect it mirrors Athy’s position in olden times when Athy was positioned on the Marches of Kildare which marked the boundaries between the settlers within and the Pale and the wild Irish occupying the lands on the far side of the river Barrow. Hay-on-Wye was in decline when in 1961 a young Richard Booth opened a second hand book shop there. His first shop soon gave way to a succession of second-hand book shops so that within a few years Hay-on-Wye became the world’s first book town. I first visited Hay in 1983 at a time when there were approximately 29 second-hand book shops including two huge shops, one of which was the town’s former cinema. Booth created the concept of the book town and invigorated Hay’s economy as antique shops and restaurants opened in previously vacant premises to meet the needs of the book lovers who arrived in the town. Hay is still thriving as the world’s first and perhaps best book town of the 20 or so book towns which have since opened up in places as far away as America and Australia. What is of interest is the enormous change brought about in the economic character of the town of Hay by one man’s initiative. Richard Booth was an innovative eccentric, but he had the courage, the tenacity and the brilliance to pursue a dream which brought enormous benefit to his part of Wales. Here in Athy we must look at the revival of the town’s fortunes by taking advantage of the town’s unique waterway features. The Blueway Project offers us a wonderful opportunity to remarket the town as a place to visit and enjoy. Tourism is one way of reviving the town’s fortunes and the success of the Athy boat tours is an example of what can be achieved in that regard. The Blueway Project however is but one element of what needs to be put in place if Athy is to have an impact as a tourism centre. The Shackleton Museum, the planning for which is ongoing, is the second element of the town’s tourism plan which I feel needs to be complemented by an appropriate development and use of White’s Castle. We now need to take bold and imaginative initiatives at this stage, as did Richard Booth so many years ago, if we hope to revitalise the economic life of Athy. We need industry, we need services but in addition we need to broaden the town’s economic life plan to include a drive for a share of the benefits of national and international tourism. The Blueway and the Shackleton Museum lead the way, but we must also see the adoption of White’s Castle into the town’s tourism initiative as a positive and indeed essential part of our future planning. Richard Booth brought prosperity to the small market town at the foot of the Black Mountains in Wales by selling second-hand books. Kildare County Council and the people of Athy can help to revive the withering economy of our market town if both cooperate in pushing ahead with the Blueway Project and the Shackleton Museum. To Kildare County Council falls the opportunity now of taking the bold but worthwhile initiative of acquiring White’s Castle to ensure it can be part of the town’s tourism plan for the future.

No comments: