Debate kicks off on future of Tullamore town centre

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O'Connor Square in the heart of Tullamore town centre

When in 2008, Offaly County Council set out to make a new plan for the town of Tullamore, the world was a different place.

The economy was booming, house prices were sky high, huge shopping centres were being planned, the two car family and their three foreign holidays a year was not unusual. Combining with Athlone and Mullingar, Tullamore would form part of a regional counterbalance to Dublin and a new international airport would be its focus. What could possibly go wrong?

Thirteen years later, with the collapse and resurrection of the economy and another boom predicted, it is difficult to know what the future will bring. Uncertainty is compounded by the unforeseeable outcomes of the pandemic, the increasingly obvious effects of climate change and the impacts of ever swifter technological advances. This is not a great time to try to predict or control the future, but we have to, as the timetable for making a new town plan is inexorable and must commence as soon as the Offaly County Plan is ratified.

A New Plan for Tullamore

The Laois/Offaly branch of the Green Party kicked off this important debate on Thursday evening last, June 3 with a very well attended online ‘Tullamore Town Meeting’ hosted by Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity, Senator Pippa Hackett.

The scene was set with two opening overviews from architect and Green County Councillor Louise Heavin and former Offaly County Planner Vincent Hussey.

Louise spoke of her experience with the successful programme of the Scottish Government for the revival of smaller towns and villages and suggested how its initiatives could be translated into the Tullamore context. She referred to the problems of town centre vacancy and dereliction and how their solution is now a central plank of government policy. The ability to move safely around which will require the provision of integrated walking and cycling routes as well as good, cheap public transport, should be a priority.

Vincent gave a comprehensive overview of Tullamore, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. In particular he believes that it should be a town to be enjoyed by and accessible to all age groups. Any plans for its future must however emerge from an extensive public debate and be democratically endorsed if they are to have any chance of success.

Government Initiatives

Minister Hackett then outlined several initiatives of the Green Party in Government under the ‘Town Centres First’ and ‘Active Travel’ programmes including:

-The allocation of €3.5 m. towards walking and cycling networks in Offaly

-The awarding of €50m.nationally towards the provision of outdoor and street dining facilities.

-The further funding of 50 kilometers of the Greenway cycling route from Edenderry to Lough Boora via Tullamore.

-The provision of €200,000 for an economic  study to determine the future of the Grand Canal Harbour.

Participants Response

The participants then offered a range of imaginative and sensible responses:

-Marcus Kirwan suggested that the extended northern suburbs of Tullamore require a more focussed local centre or better walking and cycling links to the town centre

-Roger Guiney urged the appointment of an individual professional or body to coordinate all aspects of town centre regeneration 

-Vincent Cleary pointed to the need for a more compact town centre

-Darryl Hooper urged the creation of a distinctive local tourism product which would tie into the early Christian history of the Midlands

-Anthony Hannify described the potential of Tullamore to attract remote working links with Dublin

-Dean Brickland explained how four to five story buildings would be appropriate to the redevelopment of the centre

-Julie Spollen spoke of the potential of the soon to be opened Community Arts Centre and urged its linkage to the rest of the town centre and suburbs by an integrated cycling network

-Orla Martin also lauded the opportunities for remote working and shared office hubs

-Tom McNamara advised against further northern sprawl and urged the southerly expansion of the town.

The Next Step

The curtain has risen on the first act of what will be an unprecedented debate on the future of Tullamore and with an exciting range of ideas on display. The old plan was of its time and rather than review and amend it, it is generally agreed that it would be best to start all over again and take a fresh look at the town, particularly the role which its still intact 18th and 19th architectural heritage can play.

Paradoxically, the 2010 Plan made quite detailed proposals for new suburbs (though none ever got built) while providing little or no detail on how the town centre might develop. As a basic principle, the new plan should reverse that sequence by starting at the centre and working outwards.

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