Sunday 21 January 2018

News so good, people thought it wasn't true

But the plan for 1,750 jobs in Longford is no April Fool's prank and will transform the area's future, says Claire Mc Cormack

They thought it was a callous April Fool's joke in Ballymahon when word seeped out about plans to build a €200m resort in the woods on the outskirts of the town.

The promise of jobs aplenty and thousands of visitors year round coming into Longford's rural heartland was just too good to be true. Now, after Taoiseach Enda Kenny's visit confirmed the plans for the new Center Parcs development, locals are jubilant - fearful only of objectors who might delay or stop a Klondike in the heart of the country.

In an era when major developments in rural areas often spark protests and nimbyism, reaction locally has not just been enthusiastic but has verged on unbridled joy.

Secret negotiations went on for months and there are hopes the resort and the 1,750 jobs it will bring will stem emigration and encourage many who left the area since the recession hit like a sledgehammer to return home.

The promise of prosperity and long-term tourism jobs in the middle of the country is a golden opportunity.

Quotes from the area's most famous son, playwright and author Oliver Goldsmith, come to mind. "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall, that's what this project means to Ballymahon and the Midlands," said Seamus McCormack, who heads the Goldsmith Literary Festival.

Longford Westmeath Fine Gael TD Gabrielle McFadden said "sitting" on details of the new development for seven months had become "very difficult". "It was very sensitive with Coillte and the amount of land involved, so it had to be kept under wraps, I'm really pleased the day has come, it's like Christmas morning," she said. "It's a dream come true for Ballymahon and Forgney with all it's natural beauty in the forest, the River Inny and its central location makes it so accessible."

The eco-friendly project, announced by Center Parcs and Mr Kenny on Thursday, will bring 1,000 permanent jobs and 750 construction jobs to the South Longford area, very close to the Westmeath border. Once open it will have capacity for up to 2,500 guests.

Although the development of the 375-acre site is subject to planning permission, Center Parcs says it will open in 2019, bringing about €32m a year to the Irish economy. Along with up to 500 lodges, the development will have over 100 varied indoor and outdoor activities - including a domed subtropical swimming pool - and a range of cafes and restaurants.

Despite the timing, Ms McFadden stressed the project is not about buying an election.

"It's a thousand jobs, a thousand livelihoods and Center Parcs will still be here when this Government and the next one are gone. That's my hope," she said.

Similar Center Parc resorts in the UK boast 95pc occupancy on a year-round basis.

Ballymahon native Aidan Nally says it will bring "snowball spin-offs" to the area.

"It's just hard to comprehend what it could do once they do it right. All people are talking about now is they hope there are no objectors," he said.

Some trees will be lost to build the complex. However, the company is committed to planting twice as many as are felled during construction.

Rangers will also be employed to maintain the natural habitat and wild deer that populate the area.

As most jobs are aimed at 18-24-year-olds, local man Dermot Sheehy says it may lure emigrants back to towns and villages in the area like Ballymahon, Forgney, Newtowncashel, Moyvore and Tang. "At least it will give them an option. It will give others a reason to stay after their Leaving Cert," he said.

Teddy McGoey, owner of The Rustic Inn in Abbeyshrule - an award-winning Tidy Towns village - believes all surrounding villages will prosper.

"Visitors to Center Parcs will inevitably want to explore the wider area and that's where local businesses will benefit big time," he said, adding "there is plenty of areas to kayak, fish, golf and even sky dive."

His wife, Betty McGoey, says air traffic will increase at the local airport, Abbeyshrule Aerodrome, if planning is granted.

The larger neighbouring towns are also thrilled. Bridget Manley, Deputy President of Mullingar Chamber of Commerce, said: "It cements the faith we have in the tourism sector to play its part in continuing to boost economic recovery."

Sunday Independent

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