Destination Athlone is to call on the Government to designate a ‘zone of collaboration’ among agencies in the Midlands in order to help foster a city in this region.
The group’s chairperson, businessman John O’Sullivan, said the new National Planning Framework offers a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to seek inward investment for the benefit not only of Athlone but of the Midlands region as a whole.
The effort has received the support of local councillors, including Athlone Mayor John Dolan.
“We see this as a regional development and I think Athlone is well-positioned to help drive on the region as a whole,” said Cllr Dolan.
The planning framework - ‘Ireland 2040’ - was launched earlier this month and aims to counterbalance the rise in Dublin’s population by supporting the growth of regional cities such as Galway, Cork, Limerick, and Waterford.
Mr O’Sullivan spoke to the Westmeath Independent this week about a submission which Destination Athlone is currently preparing for the planning framework.
He said it was clear that there should be a regional city in the Midlands, but this would only happen through collaboration and agreement between State agencies, industry, and local authorities across Westmeath, Roscommon, Longford, Offaly and East Galway.
“In the Midlands we have 370,000 people. It’s the third largest centre of population after Dublin and Cork. Something has to happen in the Midlands,” he said.
Established almost three years ago, Destination Athlone works to promote, market, and support the development of the town and surrounding region.
“What Destination Athlone has been trying to do is get people to work together,” said Mr O’Sullivan. “The main strategic (aim) is to achieve collaboration between the counties, the statutory bodies, education and industry, and slowly, over time, we’ve achieved that.
“Currently, around the table at Destination Athlone, we have the politicians from the Athlone Municipal Districts of Westmeath and Roscommon, we have the county managers and directors of services from the two counties, we have Waterways Ireland, Failte Ireland, the IDA, Athlone IT, and all of the major industries in the area.”
He said this kind of collaboration, on a wider scale across the Midlands, would be key to the development of a city.
The Destination Athlone submission to the planning framework will be “quite substantial” and will have input from an economist, a planner, and an architect.
The submission will be followed by the drafting of Destination Athlone's strategic plan for the region, and the creation of a new ‘brand identity’ to market it.
Mr O’Sullivan cited Lyon in France as an example of the kind of success and growth which the local group would be seeking to emulate.
“Lyon was a region which was totally overshadowed by Paris, a bit like we are by Dublin. They set about trying to tackle this and they did it through collaboration.”
He explained that economic and institutional bodies in Lyon had joined forces in a unique way to develop the area and create a brand - ‘Only Lyon’ – which has been used to successfully promote the city overseas.
Motorway and “high speed” rail links between the Midlands towns, as well as broadband, education, and water services infrastructure were some of the areas which would be in need of investment in order to help create a city in the Midlands, said Mr O'Sullivan.
He commented that the region had suffered in the past because of an inability to secure funding for initiatives that crossed county, or provincial, boundaries, and the focus should now be on creating a ‘zone’ for ring-fenced inward investment and mandatory collaboration between agencies.
“For example, you could make it mandatory for the IDA West and IDA East to sit down once a month to discuss growth in this region,” he said. “You could provide a mandatory requirement for all of the local authorities to (work) together.”
He said that for a regional city strategy to be successful it should seek developments not just in Athlone but in other areas of the Midlands also.
“There would be no point in Athlone looking for a hospital. We should support in every shape or form the development of a centre of excellence in Mullingar Hospital for one condition, and a centre of excellence in Tullamore Hospital for another condition. Then put in place fast trains and motorways between them.”
John McGrath of Athlone Chamber of Commerce said the Chamber was fully supportive of Destination Athlone and was “eager to put forward this whole concept of working together, collaborating, and driving on from there.”
Destination Athlone is due to make its submission to the National Planning Framework ahead of the deadline of Thursday, March 16.