Saturday 21 April 2018

Who locked our potential?

Sorcha Crowley hears what you think of Sligo's rural economy

Brendan Feely of Alpha Precision in Tubbercurry
Brendan Feely of Alpha Precision in Tubbercurry
Head of Bank of Ireland Sligo, Leitrim and and Roscommon Joann Hosey and Tubbercurry Branch Manager Sheila Lenehan and staff in the bank’s newly renovated project centre. Pic: Sinead Healy

If new jobs are key to saving rural Ireland from decline, then the people to do those jobs must either be here or be persuaded to move here to fulfil those jobs.

It's a chicken and egg situation. A perceived lack of skilled workers in the North West is often cited as the reason a large multi-national won't open a new factory here.

Sligo, Donegal and Mayo are the only three counties which experienced a drop in population in the past decade.

How do rural businesses in Sligo address this?

That Tubbercurry, a once thriving market town 40 years ago, has been badly hit by the downturn there is no doubt. But there are also businesses here not just surviving but thriving.

Bank of Ireland has brought 25 extra jobs to the town in an internal initiative to spread employment around the country.

Recently appointed Head of Bank of Ireland for Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon Joann Hosey met The Sligo Champion in the Tubbercurry branch.

She believes attracting back the diaspora is one way to reverse the population decline: "If you look at the population I'm managing I've about 136,000. We have probably the most aged population in the country, about 15% are over 65 years compared to a 12% national average. We need to attract back our youth after they finish college," she said. "Sligo IT would play a critical role to encouraging their students to stay in Sligo but also working with other universities where Sligo people have gone to attract them back. It's really important we attract people back early in their career so they can develop a strong career in Sligo," she said.

"We have everything in Sligo: fabulous coastlines, plenty of housing, excellent schools - what we need is employment to make it the full package," said Joann, a Tubbercurry native herself.

She is involved with Sligo LEADER programmes and also realises the potential of supporting start-ups, especially as "there are only so many FDI companies out there."

"There's significant leader funding for those groups and start-up labs. It's actually mind-blowing the extent of supports available."

Joanna and Tubbercurry Branch Manager Sheila Lenehan lobbied to bring extra bank staff to their newly refurbished premises above the branch.

They succeeded and now 25 new people are carrying out bank project work upstairs.

"We're absolutely delighted to get them upstairs," said Sheila. "They're doing their shopping in the local supermarket, they're buying their lunches here so they're spending here." Joann says there's evidence of a knock-on effect already: "You walk down the town and the shops would comment on the increased footfall. Marian in the local shoe shop can see the women upstairs are coming down and buying their shoes locally so it is having a lovely positive impact on the town," she added.

They say they have evidence that business "did happen" on the back of their Tubbercurry South Sligo Enterprise Town exhibition event before Christmas.

Another successful business owner in Tubbercurry would like to see the Government cut some of the red tape for state assistance.

Brothers Brendan and Enda Feely have been running their highly specialised toolmaking business Alpha Precision for the past 20 years and currently employ ten highly-skilled staff.

As contract builders making high-value custom parts (costing anything from ¤10,000 up to ¤100,000) for the likes of Abbotts and other plastic and metal companies, they work 8-10 weeks ahead of themselves.

"In 12 weeks, we're on the dole. But we're carrying bank leases, staff costs, very high expenditure and you've no real safety net," said Brendan.

"We would certainly like to see breaks for business like grants for capital equipment, grants for training," he said. "What we find is that by the time you go and apply for the grants, it's such a huge effort - we'd nearly have to hire a secretary there's that much paperwork for a ¤2,000 grant - we'd be thinking we'll do without it. We just couldn't be bothered," he said.

The standard of local accommodation is another issue he raised: "It'd be nice to see some of the tourism money mentioned in the report helping the local accommodation to lift their game for our clients," he said.

Have our politicians done enough?

"No, I wouldn't see that at all. In terms of job creation, we were working with a company on a valid ceramic water filtration project. Nobody showed any initiative to do that. We were knocking on the door asking for help. They might see toolmaking and water filtration as not worth the money. I don't know but they didn't seem too interested in us anyway," said Brendan.

Sligo Champion