Tourism projects offering new hope for BnM communities – but will they deliver?

I am studying for a postgraduate diploma in the field of tourism at the moment and decided recently to try and analyse the scale of investment going on, not just here in Roscommon, but specifically in the rather beautiful twin towns of Lanesboro and Ballyleague on the Shannon.

Despite a multi-million euro investment in all sorts of projects in the area in recent times, half the people in the town, or indeed perhaps even more, have no idea what is actually going on in terms of the future development of the place and how it may well look by the time their sons and daughters have grown up, taken control of its destiny and settled down – if they can there – with their own families in the years to come.

Behind the scenes now for nearly five years, there has been an absolutely incredible amount of economic planning and activity underway in this community which has undoubtedly suffered with the demise of peat harvesting and the closure of the local power station. Some of this is coordinated between different agencies and bodies, county councils and third parties, but there is an awful lot going on at the moment and last week the ESB held its first online consultation with the people of the town to discuss their own plans for the future of the area.

With a decision apparently made to demolish the old power stations, the ESB has started the process to seek strategic infrastructure status with An Bord Pleanála so that they can speed up the planning process and try to get on and build a new battery energy storage system (BESS) and synchronous condenser at both of the old sites in Lanesboro and Shannonbridge. These developments have huge implications for the local area. I presume it’s the same premise as the battery storage system already operated privately in Shannonbridge where the batteries are charged while the wind is blowing and then feed into the national grid when the turbines have stopped turning. It is not clear how many actual jobs they will create when they are up and running but decisions on the planning for these applications are due by April 1st.

Returning to the tourism theme, I have decided to  outline as much as I can here in this column over the next two weeks to explain to people what is going on behind the scenes and the potential for change that is coming.

Last week Minister Heather Humphries kick-started the newest chapter when she announced details of the latest allocation of €200,000 for a major project on the west bank of the river in Ballyleague.

Sometimes when these announcements or briefings are being made public, only a few lines of general description comes with them in the newspaper or on a website and most people have no clue at all where the project actually is located or what is entailed until the planning process arrives much later. But, at a time when people in that area need some reassurance about the future viability of the town, I felt it might be a good idea to flesh out each of them here and list every plan and proposal that has actually been launched for the town in recent times and let people see for themselves how they fit into the big picture unfolding.

Let’s start with that move when Heather Humphreys announced that Ballyleague would receive €200,000 to help to develop a high quality visitor destination amenity on the River Shannon. The plan was drawn up by Roscommon County Council after consultation with the village renewal committee in Ballyleague and the people behind the Lough Ree Access for All centre. It is really all about linking up these key sites on the same trail along the river front where a fantastic promenade was put in during the first ten years of this new millennium. It’s the type of shiny new development one often sees nowadays around the country in tourism towns like Westport and will really enhance the experience for people getting off the boats or just visiting the area for fishing or boating. I live just a stone’s throw from the site and I know the amount of people who already walk that promenade from 6 am in the morning to 11 pm at night so I can really imagine the boost this terrific new destination project is going to bring to the area.

On top of this move there’s an even bigger project already in the planning directly across the river on the eastern shore of the Shannon in Lanesboro. The Rural Regeneration and Development Fund (RRDF) is behind this one and the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD) has already approved funding of some €468,700 for a project on the enhancement of the attractiveness of Lanesboro as a tourism destination – so between the two developments on the tourism destination theme, this really is ‘joined up thinking’ of the highest quality.

I understand this money is being spent on the progressing of a really exciting visitor centre project to be developed in the area best known locally as the 1st and 2nd quarries which are located at the bottom of the car park near the old harbour on the duck pond side of the Shannon. The money is being spent on preparing planning drawings and environmental assessments for the development of the centre there in a bid to attract greater tourism to the area. It’s a lot of money for just plans and designs, but (in brief) I believe the islands of Lough Ree will be a key feature of the actual visitor centre if and when they build it and we already know that an outdoor theatre area – similar to the one pictured on this page in the Kilkenny area – is part of the great plan for that area.

On top of these developments there are a plethora of ongoing Just Transition Fund (JTF) projects underway in the general Ballyleague-Lanesboro area. The cash for these is coming from the fund set up by the Government to try and re-start local economies after the loss of jobs in Bord na Mona and ESB. A lot of them are tied into ongoing feasibility study work on infrastructure – tourism-related and otherwise – and it is to be hoped that, when they are finished, real economic development will follow on with new jobs in the areas. I am going to brief readers about just one more of these projects this week and another five in next week’s column.

Longford County Council are at the top of the list exploring options for the establishment of a tourism hub in Lanesboro, which is supposed to drive a suite of projects to build on the tourism infrastructure already in the area and make Lanesboro/Ballyleague a more attractive tourism location in line with the offering of Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.

This project has been allocated €212,500 by the Just Transition Fund and is believed to include measures like exploring the installation of a brand new business ‘relief’ road at the back of the main street that would free up traffic in the town a bit more for tourists and visitors.

Appointment of consultants to carry out a scoping document was done a long time ago and the appointment of consultants to carry out a feasibility study and come up with a preferred project identification of a sustainable tourism project was supposed to be done last summer. According to the JTF website, the preliminary design and environmental assessments are supposed to commence in the second quarter of 2022, so let’s see what comes out of it.

Next week we will look at the exciting plans for a new transport museum near Cloontuskert, a new boardwalk in Ballyleague, and the first just transition fund project which is already creating jobs in the area.