Town finds self-reliance is only Suir-fire way to beat downturn
OUTSIDE the Sean Kelly Sports Centre, named after the town's most famous son, three flags flutter in the breeze.
Either side of the Irish tricolour fly the blue and gold of Tipperary with the blue and white of Waterford, signifying Carrick-on-Suir's bridging of the famous river.
"We've no Kilkenny flag but we probably should," centre committee member Jack Lalor says with a laugh. "A lot of our customers are from Kilkenny and the border is only 100 yards down the road."
For years, locals have argued that -- because of their location on the margins of three jurisdictions -- they have been all but ignored by each.
It is an argument that would be rejected by the powers that be, as would the local contention that Carrick never felt the full force of the Celtic Tiger's roar.
Either way, many in the area have decided that waiting for a government kick-start is like 'Waiting for Godot' and are busying themselves making their own luck, recession or no recession.
Amid the boarded up windows and empty shop premises that are just as much a feature of Main Street, Carrick-on-Suir, as they are of Main Street, Ireland, these days, Michael Keane is a one-man hive of activity.
Fresh from 15 years of surfing the economic wave as a cabinet-maker in the construction business, Michael was hit as hard as any when the work dried up and the banks didn't want to know. Then, when a mobile phone company and a travel agency pulled out of his Main Street shops, he found himself with two empty premises. However, as he says himself, "you could just close it down and walk away but what's the point in that? That's no good to anybody".
One of the shops has since been let out to a men's clothing business, Wurlitzer, while Michael and his wife Abby are now renovating the second, readying it for a client they hope will come before long.
Something of a renaissance man having once worked as a set-builder for the Ralph Lauren fashion company during a spell in New York, Michael recently won a green innovation award for his invention of a means of recycling old tyres and turning them into rubber kerbstones. Now all he needs is the finance to turn his idea into a business. "But we'll keep trying," he says with the grin of a man whose vocabulary doesn't include the phrase "give up".
Next door, the recently opened Wurlitzer shop -- the latest venture by Kevin Devoy who runs similar outlets in Clonmel and Dungarvan -- is ticking over nicely with its special offers, incentives and payment schemes. But nothing comes easy any more.
"You have to fight against it," manager Joe Hayes says when asked about the recession. "There's a good footfall in this town but the town is being killed off because there's nothing coming into it."
The arrival of any well-known women's clothing shop into Carrick would boost business not just for Wurlitzer, according to Joe, but for other outlets as it would keep people shopping locally rather than heading to the bigger urban centres treading on Carrick's toes such as Waterford, Clonmel and Kilkenny.
Like in towns across Ireland, one of the main gripes of business people in Carrick-on-Suir is the cost of commercial rates -- money handed over to the local council in proportion to the size of a given premises.
An initiative developed at town council level, and which is awaiting the approval of the Government, may change that, says Labour Party councillor Denis Landy. New arrivals to the town, which aren't displacing other similar businesses, will pay a discounted 25pc of rates in their first year, rising to 50pc in the second year and 75pc in the third. "It's the hardest three years in business," he points out. "With this, I think we can make a go of it."
Culturally, Carrick-on-Suir is well served with award-winning drama, a well-regarded operatic society and a rich musical heritage. Thriving sports include cycling -- a legacy of the halcyon Sean Kelly days -- gaelic games, soccer, tennis, rugby and athletics.
But on the economic front, some say that Carrick has never really been out of recession since the closure of the once-thriving tannery, with its 300 jobs, in 1985. For evidence, they can recall jobless figures which were down to about 4pc nationally at the height of the boom, but still reaching 9pc and 10pc in this area.
Now that every city, town and village in the country is suffering, that unemployment rate is up from 958 people in 2006 to 2,225 people today in Carrick.
IT is a trend that hasn't gone unnoticed down at the Nano Nagle Resource Centre in Clancy House. Now named after the world-famous musical family -- the last of whose brothers, Liam, died just months ago -- the imposing former Presentation Convent hosts a myriad of local services ranging from computer training to employment mediation to yoga.
Run on a not-for-profit basis by a committee, chaired by Marie Cooney and managed by Sr Bridget O'Keeffe, the centre opened its doors five years ago but is now seeing a boom in demand for many of its facilities, particularly anything relating to unemployment or disadvantage.
"So many people get certs here, for whatever course they have done, and they're just delighted to have them in their hands," Marie says.
Upstairs, training co-ordinator Pat Wallace runs a computer class for FAS trainees, fresh from piloting a Local Training Initiative (LTI) which saw FAS workers partly renovate an old Franciscan Friary in Carrickbeg (the Co Waterford side of the town) and install a computer room. "The beauty of it," he says, "is that it's more than training -- it's building on community development. It's a programme by the community, for the community. We're hoping to get another one (LTI) going in September."
Also based in the Nano Nagle centre is mediator with the Local Employment Service, Annie Dalton, who helps those who find themselves unemployed with the likes of CVs, letter-writing, interview techniques and career guidance.
"Unfortunately, I don't have employers kicking down my doors looking for people so they have to be pro-active," she says.
But, as with many of the other services being offered in the area which are proving of benefit to those blown hither and tither by the economic storm, it's ensuring that help is out there. "It's somewhere for them to turn," she says.
Their industries may be long gone, their jobless rate higher than most and their plight little more than an afterthought to those in Government Buildings, but the picture of Sean Kelly at the town square named after him and the sight of the voluntarily run Sean Kelly Sports Centre are a reminder of what can be done in Carrick-on-Suir, and anywhere where imagination and hard work are valued.
"It has to pay for itself and it has done so far," says Jack Lalor who has been on the committee since the beginning. "It's a great example of what the community here can do."