Plan to turn eyesore into co-working hub
One of the most prominent disused buildings in Athlone could be transformed into a co-working hub for up to 200 people under a proposal which is currently being developed.
A feasibility study is underway on the potential revamp of the 'old Tech' building on Northgate Street, which is close to the Radisson Blu Hotel and was used by Westmeath VEC and Athlone IT at various stages in the past.
Some €77,000 in Just Transition funding was allocated last year towards an 'Athlone Co-Working Hub' feasibility study.
This is being carried out by the Kerry-based consultancy HQ Consulting, which operates three remote working hubs in Kerry.
Once the study is completed, towards the end of this year, it's anticipated Government funding to redevelop the long-idle building could then be sought in early 2022.
Athlone Chamber of Commerce is leading the project and working in conjunction with Westmeath County Council, Athlone IT, and other agencies.
In an update at last Friday's meeting of the council's enterprise and tourism policy committee, Chamber CEO Gerry McInerney described it as "a very exciting project" and one that had been in the works for a number of years.
"The aim is to deliver a dedicated green energy digital hub with space for 200 people in a historic town centre location," he said.
“It will include a mix of shared and open-plan work spaces, own-door office space and co-creation spaces for the provision of educational workshops.”
The meeting was told that the feasibility study would take around six months in total and the consultant was currently half-way through this process.
"The study is moving along, so hopefully we will get a very positive outcome from it and will then be ready to apply for funding to complete the project," he said.
Local councillor Aengus O'Rourke commented that the building in question was "sticking out like a sore thumb" and that a co-working hub would be an ideal future use for it.
"The building is close to the centre of Athlone, beside the new cycleway, and not far from the motorway. All in all, it is the perfect location," said Cllr O'Rourke.
"This building has been idle for too long. It occupies a very commanding position in the heart of Athlone and it desperately needs a new lease of life.
"I am determined that we find the right fit for this beautiful, listed building, one that is sustainable into the long-term. My vision is for a new modern economic support facility, also perhaps incorporating an educational arrangement with the new technological university involved."
His fellow Athlone councillor John Dolan agreed that the co-working hub was "a great initiative," and added that he was keen to see the building brought back into use.
Council director of services Barry Kehoe said the feasibility study on the development was being 85% funded by Just Transition, with the remainder of the funding coming from the council.
"There is a detailed technical report on the Northgate Street building that we, in the steering group, now have and we're working through the process," he said.
"I would hope that by the end of this year we would have the feasibility study, which will hopefully equip us to go forward and apply for funding under a Government scheme for the provision of co-working centres. That's certainly the plan.
"It's a fantastic site, a fantastic structure, with huge historical significance for Athlone. (The council) would be agnostic, to an extent, regarding the proposed use, be it educational, enterprise, research, or a mixture of these.
"The primary issue for us is that the buildings are brought back into use and that they contribute to Athlone either as an economic or educational hub, or both," he said.
"There could be some element of the technological university taking some space, having an involvement and providing services to people on site, as well as an economic or enterprise centre or co-working hub.
"But the main issue is that the site is brought back into use and that it makes a positive contribution to Athlone, rather than being the unsightly sight it is at the moment," Mr Kehoe concluded.
Separately, two other remote working initiatives in Athlone were awarded grants by the Department of Rural and Community Development during the summer.
One of the recipients of a €75,000 grant was the Arbutus Innovation Centre in Monksland, described as "Athlone's first privately-run Enterprise Centre and Co-Working Hub".
Athlone Community Development Association, based at the Business Development Centre in Parnell Square, was also awarded funding of just over €64,000 towards renovations designed to help create more workspace and hot-desk facilities.