The bridge over the Castletown River in Dundalk
Now, before you grab the pitchforks and spark-up the torches, hear me out - Drogheda could be on to something good.
That something good is the recently unveiled ‘Westgate Vision: A Townscape Recovery Guide’.
This detailed and expansive (75 pages) urban regeneration programme looks to improve, mordernise and ultimately kick-start the historic Westgate area of Drogheda.
An area which, like certain parts of Dundalk, has become somewhat derelict and unloved over the last few decades. For various reasons this has happened - both there and here. It is a tale which could be spun across many regional towns around the country.
It goes something like this - economic and retail investment is pushed out to the suburbs (cheaper land prices and supposed easier accessibility for the car-loving population), this forces the closure of shops in town centres as the public looks outside the town boundaries for cheaper goods etc. With the closure of these shops, residents - who would have lived above the town centre retail units, depart and the decline gathers pace.
This ‘suburbanisation’ of regional towns essentially removes the core; leaving a hollow, deflated and depressed town centre - not attractive to businesses or people looking for somewhere vital to live.
It’s nothing new and certainly not exclusive to Ireland.
This column previously discussed the need to bring life back into Dundalk’s town centre by having people live above shops once again. A rather successful Australian model was looked to for hope in this regard.
Westgate in Drogheda is an area similar to the northend of Dundalk (think Bridge Street, Patrick Street or Church Street), which has bags of character and an abundance of historic culture, but has been left to essentially go stale and diminish in importance.
If the extensive and perfectly executed brochure is anything to go by, then Drogheda has a real chance to achieve urban regeneration - no mean feat. The Westgate Vision is bold in many regards, but why not shoot for the stars?
Taking in observations relating to other, more successful urban areas - think Galway’s Shop Street, Kilkenny and Waterford, the plan wants to use these places as visual guides to what could be achieved in Drogheda. The plan incorporates short term (‘quick wins’ as they call them here), medium term and long term goals - with a 5-10 year long-term delivery deadline.
The ‘quick wins’ are the ‘spit and polish’ aspects of the initial plan - they’re cheap and rather easy to get off the ground in truth - painting of shop fronts, upgrading of footpaths and ‘general housekeeping’ mostly. But they help to foster the idea of change happening - which is vital.
These physical, short term goals are, of course, to be applauded, but they are ultimately superficial, and without strong follow-through on the remainder of the 10 year vision it will only be a bandaid-on-a-broken-leg type solution.
Not to try and steal someone else’s thunder here, but a lot of this plan could be easily transferable to similar projects in Dundalk.
A particular aspect of the plan which caught the eye was the collective want to turn that part of Drogheda back towards the river.
The same should hold true right here in Dundalk. Certainly the Castletown River is no Boyne, but for too long Dundalk has faced away from it - removing its potential as an area to allow people to use it as a social amenity - walking, sipping coffee, generally making the most of the potential retail and tourist possibilities.
Of course, this lovely brochure and accompanying blue-sky thinking are great in theory, but the nitty-gritty, down in the muck-and -bullets implementation is another thing entirely. Getting that much-used word ‘the stakeholders’ to buy-into the vision takes a lot of arm-wrestling and finessing - people, and business people to a large extent too, fear change.
They need to have confidence not only in the vision, but in those who are leading it. Those who are leading it will need bags of energy and strength of character, patience and perhaps, most importantly, empathy.
Change takes time, but it needs to happen if Dundalk’s historic town centre is to be a going concern for future generations to enjoy.
Let’s not allow another decade slip by without real and long-lasting urban regeneration for the town becoming a reality.