A ‘visionary’ dream for embattled Port

EMIGRATION and unemployment is threatening Portarlington’s future but a ‘visionary’ new project is hoping to build a better future in town.

EMIGRATION and unemployment is threatening Portarlington’s future but a ‘visionary’ new project is hoping to build a better future in town.

It is hoped that the project, launched by a community group, could see the town completely transformed by the year 2020. Titled “Port’s Vision 2020”, it will contribute to the very first joint development plan by Laois and Offaly county councils for the border town, divided by the river Barrow.

Portarlington Community Development Association (PCAP) are behind the ambitious project which they hope will radically improve employment, community spirit, tourism and sport, education and the environment for the 15,000 people in the town and surrounding areas.

In year one, PCAP conducted surveys and audits, while free workshops have already been held to hear what local groups and individuals have to say, with more on the way in September. A steering committee, including representatives from state agencies will use this feedback to create a master plan, to be achieved in yearly steps, with an annual awards ceremony to mark each stage.

Chair of the steering committee Seamus Kehoe believes the only way to succeed is to think big, and adapt to change.

“We want this to be truly visionary. People thought Monsignor Horan was bananas for wanting to build an airport in Knock, but he succeeded. Why can’t we do something similar?” he said, adding that ideas do have to be practical and achievable.

Unemployment is a problem in Portarlington, with many construction workers out of work. It is now estimated at 25 percent, comparing badly to the national average of 14 per cent. Mr Kehoe, from Killenard, has felt the effects, with two of his six children already emigrating for work.

“Any such children are a loss to the community. The problem is if we don’t do something quickly, we can put an umbrella over it and call it an old folk’s home,” he said.

One of their June workshops invited people interested in starting up a new business.

“We thought if we got one person there, we’d be doing well, but we got 13 people interested in setting up a business, They are now in contact with Laois Partnership, Port Enterprise Centre and Port Credit Union, who since have set up a section specifically for SMEs,” he says

They see huge potential in the Bórd na Móna Eco Park in Garryhinch, which they expect to be in place well before 2020. The E470 million project will create a reservoir the size of the Phoenix Park on cutaway bog in Garryhinch, for water supply to four counties including Dublin, creating a nature park with potential for water sports and fishing.

Secretary of the committee Celia Deverell explains.

“If we can get Bórd na Móna here, it’s like an anchor tenant in a shopping centre, it will be a big tourism thing. Garryhinch could transform Port. There is a similar one in England and the town beside it has completely boomed. A lot of the activities could be run by local groups,” she says.

Bórd na Móna are serious enough about their proposed development that they have come on board as a major sponsor of the Port Vision project for the next five years. Other investors are Laois Partnership, Offaly Partnership and Port Credit Union.

Ms Deverell is originally from New York, but has been living in her adopted town for over 25 years, and sees huge untapped potential in Port.

“We are only 30 miles from Dublin, this is a catchment area, with great potential in the farming, food and tourist sectors,” she says.

The September workshops will focus on farming, community resilience, tourism and education. They will be facilitated by an expert in each field, and are free to all members of the public.

“We are delighted with the incredible quality of facilitators. Peter Young from the Farmers Journal, Davie Philips of Cultivate, Damien Brennan of Fáilte Ireland (brother of the Brennans of RTE’s ‘At Your Service’) and NUI Cork’s Prof Ronan O’Farrell.

“This is the people’s opportunity to come and say, we want this, or we’re not happy with that,” says Mr Kehoe.

A small action group will be created from each workshop to deal with the particular areas.

“The success will depend on how energetic each sector is. They will be the driving force for the total project. We will take their feedback, and give them practical help,” he said.

See www.portarlingtoncommunity.com or call 8645728.