Thursday 24 August 2017

Say cheese -- locals have cause to smile again as town bounces back

Hopeful Cork area banishes the doom and gloom

Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

IN the 1970s and 1980s, Mitchelstown was simply known as 'Cheesetown' and its famous local product was so popular that the town was deemed to be recession proof.

As long as cheddar continued to churn off the production lines and Galtee Meats' sausages and rashers were a breakfast favourite, the town was comfortably insulated from the worst fall-out of the economic malaise of the 1970s and 1980s. But no longer.

Mitchelstown currently has, per capita, one of Ireland's highest unemployment rates and has also earned 'DEIS' or disadvantaged classification for its schools. The former Galtee plant -- where more than 600 people worked at one point in the 1970s -- has been levelled and is now a vacant lot.

Shadow

Within the closure of Galtee Meats, Dairygold has shed more than 1,000 jobs over the past six years to become a pale shadow of the firm it once promised to become.

Dairygold formed when Mitchelstown co-op merged with Mallow-based Ballyclough in the early 1990s.

The agri-food company no longer even owns the brands that made it an Irish consumer giant, having sold off its rights to names including Calvita, Shaws etc, to the Kerry Group for €165m last year.

Dairygold employs around 400 people in the town -- a fraction of its previous total.

"The sad thing is that this town was on its knees, even before the Celtic Tiger exploded, and the economy went into recession," local campaigner Timmy White said.

"The recession just made a bad situation even worse."

But amidst the gloom, there are now heartening signs that Mitchelstown is beginning its slow, arduous fight back.

A 'buy local' campaign, that included a loyalty card to reward Mitchelstown purchases, has been hailed as a tremendous success over the past year.

A multi-million euro healthcare centre has given the town a showcase medical complex and, perhaps most importantly, German supermarket giant, Aldi, is putting the finishing touches to its vast new Mitchelstown distribution centre.

The complex represents a €100m investment by Aldi and will employ 160 staff, the majority of which will come from the local community.

Dairygold has also chipped in with some good news, re-locating its corporate headquarters back to the town, under new boss Jim Woulfe.

The Mitchelstown cheddar plant still ranks as the biggest in Ireland or Britain and its UK dairy business is now performing very strongly.

Mitchelstown Business Association (MBA) chairman Eamon O'Brien said locals have put the "doom and gloom" behind them and focus on the town's assets and attractions.

"We realised there was no point going on about the past. We had to concern ourselves with the future and what Mitchelstown offered. This is a great town in which to live and a good place to do business in," he said.

Local auctioneer Tony Lewis admitted the loss of the Dairygold jobs had been bad particularly brutal for the town -- but said it was vital that Mitchelstown now encourage a more diverse employment base.

"The problem for Mitchelstown was that, so long as Dairygold was successful, no other IDA-backed businesses were ever located here. Basically, we had all our eggs in the one basket," he said.

"There was a study done by one consultant, Seamus Hayes from Wexford, which highlighted the need for a town co-ordinator and, out of that, the Mitchelstown Forum was born. Since then, it has been helping to drive economic development and address the strategic issues facing the town," he said.

As predicted for the national economic fightback, the seeds of recovery in Mitchelstown are now being sown in the small-medium enterprise sector.

"We are very positive for the future. Just last weekend, we had the successful Mitchelstown Music Festival (Indiependence Festival) and that brought valuable income into the town."

These are all signs of the towns recovery and one business struggling to cope with demand is Hodgins Sausages.

Recently, it opened a state-of-the-art new 15,000sqft facility on the Dublin Road.

Founded in 2003, and initially a family firm, Hodgins now employs 30 people and is constantly expanding its product portfolio amid strong sales.

Mervin Hodgins -- a native of Mayo -- moved to Mitchelstown in 1991 and the former butcher saw that a market existed for high-quality Irish sausages.

Strength

While Dairygold opted to shut Galtee Meats, Hodgins has gone from strength to strength.

The challenge for Mitchelstown will be to continue to broaden its employment base and reverse the consumer-spending decline that left the town's main street plagued by closed businesses.

The economic decline and spiralling unemployment unfortunately also masked a lot of good work that had been done in the town over recent years.

Mitchelstown got its first playground in the past five years -- and its famous town square was lavishly redeveloped a decade ago. Plans are also under discussion for the development of a leisure complex.

New estates in Brigown, Stagpark, Kildorrery Road and Mulberry have critically increased the town's population while the new M8 motorway, which only opened in May 2009, has made it quite feasible for people to live in Mitchelstown and commute to work in Cork, Cahir, Clonmel or Tipperary.

Unlike other towns, Mitchelstown doesn't have a huge overhang of empty housing stock and ghost estates.

Credit union manager, Pat Roche, a native of Mitchelstown who commutes to work in Limerick, has seen it all before -- and acknowledged that the economic decline over the past four years was far worse than anything experienced in the 1970s and 1980s.

Irish Independent

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