This week, Roscommon’s locally-owned community newspaper, the Roscommon People, introduces an occasional series in which we gauge the mood of the public. On Wednesday, Roscommon People Editor PAUL HEALY sat down with his three guests…and chatted about The Budget, challenges facing Roscommon…and anything else that came up…
Kathleen Shanagher is long-time Chairperson of Roscommon Tidy Towns Association and an Independent member of Roscommon County Council
Sean Mahon, a solicitor based in Roscommon Town, is the current President of Roscommon Chamber of Commerce
Eamonn Gleeson is a well-known businessman. Eamonn and his wife Mary are proprietors of Gleeson’s Townhouse & Restaurant, The Square, Roscommon
PH: I’d like to know what you thought about the Budget this week…and also about the challenges facing the town and county…
Sean Mahon (SM): It was a fairly neutral Budget, which is as good as you can hope for. Normally you’d be giving out about something. In this instance you want to see them maintaining a degree of control over public finances and not getting into a situation where they’re spending money that they don’t necessarily have. But I would have preferred to have seen more done in relation to concerns over Brexit – and also on housing.
I know there was a loan introduced (on Brexit) for small and medium sized enterprises with a specific focus on food…
Eamonn Gleeson (EG): A drop in the ocean.
SM: Tourism and the food or hospitality industry are the two areas that are going to be most affected by Brexit in this region. Fair enough they maintained the reduced VAT rate in respect of the hospitality sector. Even that isn’t going to be sufficient to counter the impact of Brexit. More could have been done on housing. I’m surprised at the lack of take-up on the Repair & Lease Scheme. It allows means-tested landlords to get a repeatable grant of up to €40,000 to repair property for long-term letting for social housing. The grant is repaid to the Council over the life of the lease. It should not be means-tested, I feel. The property owner has the cost of the repairs met up front by the Council and the Council gets a housing unit provided and the money is paid back to the local authority. A win-win situation.
EG: In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s the Councils built housing. They abandoned that in favour of the private developers.
Another thing I’d like to address is the minimum wage. I have no problem with the minimum wage, but I don’t think it should be taxed at all. Why should there be a USC in it?
As I’ve said in public recently, I don’t think enough is being done for tourism in the Midlands. Brexit is a big concern. The Midlands depends on tourism. The Americans will still come in, because of the family connections.
Talking of tax, I’d have no problem with a 5% city tax on accommodation. They have it in every country in Europe.
SM: The cities are booming.
Kathleen Shanagher (KS): We need to attract people to Roscommon, even on day trips. Do you get positive feedback from people who come here, Eamonn?
EG: I met people from Tuam here this time last year. I asked them what they were doing in Roscommon, the reason for their visit. They said ‘shopping.’ I said ‘what?’ They explained that it takes them 40 minutes to get to Galway…when they get there it’s hassle, parking, charges. It’s 55 minutes to Roscommon for them…and it’s a great town. You have the big shops here but your town centre is still intact.
KS: The amount of people who come into Roscommon town and they feel they just have to stop and say to someone ‘your town centre is so great.’ The flowers, the shops, the people…we need to promote it. The free parking is a huge thing.
PH: Is the free parking secure?
PH: No risk to it?
KS: No risk. I know in other towns the Council is getting the one euro or fifty cent or whatever and it’s going back into the town – and that’s not happening here – but look at the footfall. We’re getting the people, you can’t buy that.
EG: Look at Longford, look at all the closed doors on its Main Street and think of all the rates that are being lost.
SM: You’d have to think at this stage that everyone, including the Council, has fully bought into the free parking.
KS: I met so many people at the Food Festival in Lanesboro last weekend and they said ‘Oh yes we know Roscommon, we go there for the people and the shops and the free parking.’ And the restaurants! They said the people of Roscommon are so friendly when you meet them on the streets. They mention the ‘fruit & veg’ people!
PH: The Food Festival in Ballyleague/Lanesboro was a big success. Is the answer to rural Ireland’s difficulties this type of bottom-up approach from communities? As opposed to relying on Central Government?
KS: Absolutely. When myself and Cllr. Orla Leyden attended the Bank of Ireland Enterprise Town event there, we were blown away by what the community in Ballyleague and Lanesboro are doing together.
SM: We can’t discount Government. Unless you have significant capital spend in the regions, you won’t have development. The increased capital spending being spoken of has to be targeted at the regions. They talk of balanced regional development. We’re 20, 30 years behind the Greater Dublin area. We need that imbalance addressed. We offer a solution to the east coast. They can’t see that.
PH: Do you feel that Central Government, the State agencies, our Oireachtas members, are doing enough to create jobs in Roscommon town – and county? What about the elusive Moss Vision jobs (50 jobs announced two years ago; not yet realised)?
EG: I don’t know what’s going on with that project. They’re out on site the last two years. The guys (on site) that I’ve spoken to are very positive about Roscommon…
KS: It’s very strange (the lack of news on the Moss Vision jobs). There was so much talk about it. It’s a bit of a joke at this stage.
PH: Sean, have the Chamber of Commerce got a hotline to our Oireachtas people on it?
SM: No, we have no news on it. I have spoken to Denis Naughten on two issues recently; broadband and the plans for an Innovation Centre in Roscommon.
PH: What’s the feedback from the business community and the public generally regarding broadband?
EG: Broadband is not too bad in the town.
SM: I’d expect you to say it’s excellent, Eamonn. Well, in the core of the town…
KS: On jobs, we need to see something happening.
We had a delegation here from Rhode Island recently. They were very impressed with Roscommon town, with the schools, the town centre, the facilities. When Maurice Buckley (now OPW Chairman) was involved with IBAL (Irish Business Against Litter) he used to say that if any business person could pick anywhere in Ireland to start a business and they just came to Roscommon they should choose here! It’s about what that business person who may be thinking of locating here can offer their staff. It’s our quality of life.
EG: Who makes decisions about factories moving to a town? The CEO’s wife or husband! It is about what the town can offer the employees.
KS: The county now has a high profile with regard to Tidy Towns and IBAL. That shows community pride.
EG: Speaking of the town, Denis Naughten announced yesterday evening that there will be an extension of the Hospital hours.
KS: Great news.
SM: We can produce all these glossy brochures to promote the town but unless there’s somebody driving it…we are in a better position than we have been for years now because we have a presence at the Cabinet table. We should be having more visits now from investors.
PH: What’s the update on this proposed Innovation Centre?
SM: The Innovation Centre will be located on the Circular Road (beside the Arts Centre). Application for funding is in. When it’s completed, it will be a hub…you’ll have hotdesks, high speed broadband, areas for small enterprises. We’ll encourage and cultivate businesses to go in there…from the locality but also from other areas.
KS: We need to sell the town. The Innovation Centre will be on the ‘tour of the town.’ It will be for start-ups; they will then move on and out. It’s to get the College graduates back.
PH: Do you despair for the future of our smaller towns and villages, especially when you see post offices under threat, transport cutbacks, businesses closing?
EG: Yes – with the advent of online shopping. The future for villages is residential. The post offices are not being used.
SM: Yes, but I think there is a role for them. The postal service is a reducing service but the infrastructure itself can be a hub for any community. A building like that which is staffed, heated…I would envisage you could use it for many reasons. Even having a cup of tea or coffee.
EG: Yeah…and as a drop-off point for your online shopping! Shopping centres in America are now under threat (due to online shopping).
KS: The whole emphasis now is on people becoming computer literate. But what is that causing, all this shopping online? I’ve heard retailers saying people are going into their shops…trying on clothes…dirtying their clothes…
SM: Taking screenshots…
EG: I saw an RTE report which claimed that millennials actually resent shopping (in the traditional way). They see shops as exercise runs for retired people! They haven’t got the time…
SM: Our own shops need to put their stuff on their own websites. They can still offer a better service.
KS: I love the interaction in town. I couldn’t warm to online shopping. It’s a joy to actually go into the shops!
SM: I want to go into the shops as well. Our generation does!