Council urged to buy closed Moate Bank of Ireland premises

Local councillors have suggested that Westmeath County Council should buy the Moate Bank of Ireland premises, which closed last Friday, and convert it into a community or employment hub.

Cllr Tom Farrell proposed the purchase of the building by the local authority in a motion at this month's meeting of the Athlone Moate Municipal District.

He said funding to buy it might be available through the Government's 'Our Rural Future' initiative, adding that public ownership of the building could help protect "our heritage and the intrinsic character" of Moate.

Several of his council colleagues spoke in favour of such a move, with some arguing that Bank of Ireland should donate its building to the council, or sell it for a nominal fee to the local community.

Responding to the proposal, council Director of Services Barry Kehoe was more circumspect, saying the local authority did not have "an immediate funding source, or an immediate use," for the building.

When contacted by the Westmeath Independent about its plans for the Moate building, a Bank of Ireland spokesperson indicated it would be put up for sale in the new year.

"We have recently appointed Sherry Fitzgerald to manage a sales process, which will commence from the first quarter of next year. Their intention is to make all interested parties aware of the sale," the bank's spokesperson said.

At the October meeting of the Athlone Moate Municipal District, Cllr Farrell said the Bank of Ireland building had been "central to the identity and economy of Moate" for over a century.

"We have received significant Government investment for Moate in the last ten years, between town enhancement schemes, town and village renewal funding, funding for Dún na Sí, and Men's Shed funding," he said.

"Now we must protect the town centre, and ensure we continue to increase footfall to support our traders after a very difficult period."

Cllr Farrell said the 'Our Rural Future' scheme could be a potential source of funding for the purchase, and pointed out that there were three floors in the bank, which meant there were "multiple uses you could have there."

Cllr Louise Heavin fully supported Cllr Farrell's motion, adding that she and other councillors had been involved in a recent consultation process which identified "a number of community projects, and some enterprise projects," that could be viable in Moate.

"A number of things were identified to convert Moate from what's known as a dormitory town, where people sleep and work elsewhere, to an economic hub or enterprise place where people can work and live," she said.

Cllr Vinny McCormack described the bank building as "iconic" and indicated that he and other political representatives had approached Bank of Ireland about the idea of donating it to the local community.

"We spoke to Bank of Ireland previously, and indeed some of us followed up through various avenues, in terms of trying to get the bank to basically give the building for community use. A bank being a bank, they weren't willing to do away with their profit margin like that," said Cllr McCormack.

The former courthouse building, which is now Moate library, was a good example of what could happen when some "outside the box" thinking was used, Cllr John Dolan commented.

"I think we have to at least engage with the bank, because if it's left too long, and the building is not being used, it will deteriorate," he said.

Cllr Frankie Keena said there should be an onus on the bank to ensure the building was put to good use in the future.

"The bank profited fairly well off Moate for decades. They served the customers, but they weren't there for the good of their health.

"They came in to make money out of it, and I think they need to have some responsibility and some link with the community who were their loyal customers for many years."

He felt that the bank should offer the building for community use "free gratis" or for a nominal sum.

Concluding the discussion, Director of Services Barry Kehoe said the council had no immediate use for the bank building and had applied separately for rural regeneration funding for Moate.

"Under that (rural regeneration) project we'll be seeking to potentially acquire some of the properties that would be derelict in the town in order to bring them back into use for community purposes, and potentially other uses as well.

"That's where we feel we can make a significant contribution using rural regeneration funds," Mr Kehoe said.

"This (bank) building is ready to go, essentially. It's in very good condition, and it's a protected structure, so if we did have it we'd have to look for a use for it and that probably would be along the lines of an employment hub or something like that.

"Economically, maybe there's a benefit in somebody else taking it over and establishing a strong office in that building," he commented.

The Moate bank branch and a smaller bank branch at the former Athlone IT (now TUS) closed for good on Friday last, October 8.

The shutting of the two local branches, along with others in Castlepollard and Kinnegad, were among 103 closures in the Republic and Northern Ireland which were announced by the bank in March.

A Bank of Ireland spokesperson told the Westmeath Independent that no compulsory redundancies were being implemented as a result of the closures.

"There are no compulsory redundancies across our network as a result of branch closures.

"Colleagues have been offered the option to relocate to alternative branches, apply for alternative roles within the bank, or apply for our voluntary redundancy scheme," the spokesperson said.