Politicians and business leaders gathered in Limavady last week to discuss the big issues facing the borough and what action is needed to help the Roe Valley through harsh economic times.
Those who attended the Thursday night event at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre heard a wide ranging and varied debate about a number of issues, including local business rates, the potential for the ex-army base in Ballykelly, opportunities in the local agri-food industry and how the Borough should be cashing in on its links with neighbouring councils and it’s central position between Derry and Coleraine.
On the panel were Martin Devlin from Roe Valley Enterprises, East Derry SDLP MLA John Dallat, Glyn Roberts from NIRTA, Sinn Fein MLA Phil Flanagan and Diane Rathfield from the Roe Valley Education Forum.
Among the issues identified was the need for Stormont to show to stronger leadership to assist businesses and residents of Limavady borough who are facing a tough time. It was highlighted while there has been positive action from Stormont, the Assembly “could do better”. For example, when changes are being made to any jobs programmes, closer co-operation with local agencies who deliver the programmes across towns was needed.
Another area which could be developed is encouraging employers to provide work placement and training in-house, via retail apprenticeships. Encouraging people to start their own business, and foster the spirit of entrepreneurship from school age was another area identified.
“We have to look at self help as a real life option instead of a last resort,” said Martin Devlin told the audience.
Glyn Roberts, who urged councils everywhere to strike the rate as low as possible, agreed.
“Self employment is now than ever a realistic career option,” he said, referring to those in their 40s and 50s who had been made redundant but started their own business.
Assemblyman Dallat said an economic task force, involving all political parties, was urgently needed for the area. Heeding the hundreds of job losses from the closure of Seagate and Shackelton army base, he said there was no way the public sector could pick up on that. A master plan was needed for the 750-acre Shackelton site, which the SDLP man said has the potential to create hundreds, if not thousands of jobs.
“I hope it doesn’t turn into another Long Kesh, sitting idle,” he added. “Stormont has to give help in this crisis we are in. This is area in an absolute crisis and that is why we need a task force. We need to leave the politics aside and focus on the 18-24 years olds and the people in their 50s and 60s who are finding it extremely difficult to cope with unemployment and you see it in their faces a round Limavady, everywhere.”
The need to invest in infrastructure was also highlighted, including the need for a bypass for Dungiven, developing rail links at Ballykelly and Government investment in the Magilligan to Greencastle ferry.
Other issues mentioned on the night included the fight to save Limavady’s courthouse, and how its closure would drain income from the area; the idea of making Limavady a euro friendly town and how research and development opportunities need to be seized.
Attracting financial investment and businesses to locate in the borough was another big topic, with reference made to the launch of a masterplan for the regeneration of Limavady town centre. Mention was made by John Dallat of the Market Yard and how development of it would boost the local economy.
Mr. Dallat said he didn’t know how businesses coped with rents they had to pay.
“I would like to see the Market Yard developed. In its present state it’s not going anywhere,” he said. Having it developed, he claimed, “would make a vast difference”.
Having chains and multi nationals in Limavady was another area up for discussion, making the area a shopping destination to entice people into the borough and spend their money. Praise was directed towards the already exisiting independent and niche retailers in Limavady, which attracted people to the town because of that.
“We have universities and research and development and all kinds of stuff, all of which demands high standards of education. It would be very disappointing if DETI and Invest NI didn’t persuade somebody to locate their business here, said John Dallat.
Mr Flanagan - who stated 6,000 people had left the Limavady borough and emigrated over the past six years - said “it’s not all bad for Limavady”, and said the town itself was very appealing and attractive.
He heeded major events such as the Irish Open in Portrush, Derry as the City of Culture in 2013 and said local people should be the ones to decide the future of Shackelton.
However, a local businessman said he would love to access the runway at Shackelton to develop his business and had asked about getting access to the runway but said he got no nowhere.
Another man spoke of the time when Seagate in Limavady closed and “you couldn’t get near it” for media, and politicians.
He said there were pledges of a task force being created, but nothing had been done.
John Dallat said he had tabled questions in the Assembly on the urgent need for a task force, adding:
“There is some indication now that attitude might change.”
Diane Rathfield said the greatest strength for the borough of Limavady was its people.
“There is positivity in Limavady. There has to be otherwise we wouldn’t survive and have what we have.”