Could increased tourist footfall be the answer to reigniting the commercial potential of Elphin? A leading consultancy firm seems to think so, and the development of a local tourist attraction has been one idea that has emerged for the redevelopment of the old Bishop Hodson grammar school.
Consultancy firm Venture International, working closely with the Elphin Development Group, has carried out a survey of residents aimed at gauging public opinion on what should be done with the site, which has remained derelict since the school closed in 1980s.
While ideas such as the development of an AstroTurf were deemed unsuitable (a project more viable for local GAA club), the creation of a tourist attraction complete with community space and heritage centre has emerged as the most promising project.
It is envisaged that a Historical Interpretative Heritage Centre will be housed in the old grammar school building and former principal’s residence, while a tourist attraction would be developed in newer buildings at the rear of the site. A community area, which could be used to host film festivals or house a library space, will also be included in the plans.
Chairperson of the Elphin Community Development Group, Frank Tiernan, a native of Bunratty in Co. Clare, says the focus of the last few years has been to determine the feasibility of developing the rundown site.
“Our committee was founded in 2019 and there was consultancy there with Roscommon County Council to establish what the community thinks the site might serve and then to determine if that was feasible,” Frank said.
The Venture International survey was then carried out with the results finally available earlier this year following delays due to Covid-19.
From that survey and a comparison study with similar-sized sites elsewhere in the country, a number of ideas were put forward.
It is believed that due to Elphin’s central location in north Roscommon, a tourist attraction which included space for the local community could be the best way to go.
“Feasibility was an important aspect and so too was avoiding displacement. We don’t want to put something on this site that’s already working somewhere else in the town,” Frank said.
“Elphin is at the crossroads of Strokestown Park House, Lough Key Forest Park, Rathcroghan, and there are tens of thousands of visitors to those sites each year. Then we’ve got Carrick-on-Shannon nearby too so we feel we could get increased footfall from the tourism sector”.
The proposal has so far been received warmly by Roscommon County Council, who were impressed by the committee’s vision for the site.
“Yeah, it’s significant; representatives from the Council were impressed and they are looking to support us in applying for the (funding for) feasibility (study). Now that’s a competitive process throughout the country and there’s no guarantee that we’ll get that funding,” Frank said.
Private backing to bring such a project to fruition has not been ruled out either, but there is quiet confidence that funding would be available under Fáilte Ireland’s ‘Hidden Heartlands’ brand as well as the Just Transition Fund.
While the exact nature of a potential tourist attraction remains under wraps, the development will involve three different aspects based on 107 responses to the Venture International survey and subsequent report.
Frank believes the development would be “incredibly important” to the town due to his own experience of life in Bunratty.
“When I came from Bunratty I was used to tourism and it gives the whole community a lift. Immigration wasn’t an issue, but here, most people feel they have to leave,” Frank said.
It is hoped the project will encourage more young people to remain in Elphin while also attracting those who wish to move to rural Ireland from busier cities.
“If you built up a class, world renowned operation that was commercially viable, more people would decide they didn’t have to leave. Then if more people come into the town, you’d have enterprise developing around that. Why wouldn’t any small town have that ambition?”
The committee, Frank says, realises that this is not a ‘small idea’, but that the ambition to have tourists and school tours from across Ireland regularly arriving in Elphin is not unfounded.
Local councillor Valerie Byrne, who is also a member of the local committee, says the plan is in the very early stages but would be a significant boost for the town.
“This project would help grown the town and create some jobs. It’s all about the betterment of Elphin and the committee have been working very hard for the past number of years with that aim,” she said.
“We have an empty site in the middle of town and it would be a pity to just leave it there unused. Hopefully we can get this project up and running in the near future with the help of Roscommon County Council”.
The potential project is expected to take a number of years and substantial funding to reach fruition, but the Elphin Development Group are putting their best foot forward in the meantime. There is a growing belief in the town that this vision would put Elphin firmly on the tourist’s map.