A NEWLY elected officer board will spearhead the regeneration of the Church Lane area in Letterkenny with visions of transforming it into a Cathedral Quarter to rival other such developments both here and abroad.
At a public meeting on Thursday night, where concerns were expressed at the dangerous state of some of the existing buildings on the street, there were calls for local property owners to involve themselves in the campaign to develop the historic area.
Chairperson of the committee is Angel Vanessa Gannon, a native of Kerry who has been resident in Letterkenny for nearly ten years, while secretary is local man, Donnan Harvey, who has brought the long dormant issue back into the public eye.
Attended by close to forty interested personnel, the meeting heard a variety of proposals to help in the regeneration programme with Town Mayor, Paschal Blake, calling on the incoming committee to revise aspects of a “wonderful plan” drawn up a number of years ago by the late Planning Officer, Gaye Moynihan, aimed then at redeveloping the Lower Main Street area.
Chairing the meeting, Shane Toolan, who, though born in Galway, boasts strong connections with Letterkenny, highlighted his involvement in setting up the museum in Ballyshannon which has attracted huge numbers of visitors to the town.
His vision for the Church Lane area was a Cathedral Quarter environment, similar to that which, he said, had “revolutionised” Galway city.
Incorporating craft shops, restaurants, an interpretative and social centre, small businesses, food outlets, a wine bar and a recital area, it would represent a “win-win situation” for all stakeholders involved.
“We would hope it would turn it into a vibrant, living tourist attraction in the heart of Donegal.
“I’m from Galway and I remember the area in the city before it was transformed was in the same state as the Church Lane is today,” said Mr Toolan who pointed out that such developments were a “proven model” all over the world.
With Letterkenny Town Council set to be abolished in the summer, the meeting’s chairman suggested it could leave behind a legacy by introducing the carrot of “free rates” for the first year for premises on the Church Lane and a 50 per cent rates bill from year two up to year ten.
There was widespread backing for the plan but also caution in the midst of the positive feedback that had emanated both from the meeting and from around 2,000 ‘likes’ on the Facebook page expressing support for the Save the Church Lane campaign.
“There are a lot of issues here, it’s complex and far from an easy task,” insisted Cllr Jim Lynch who, twenty years ago, had called for a regeneration plan for the area.
“We need an overall vision of what the street will look like. We also need the property owners to step up to the plate.”
The independent councillor expressed concerns that a developer could come in and demolish some of the buildings and erect a block of flats. “The reality of the situation is that behind the Church Lane there is a lot of land and I know in the past there were proposals for a shopping centre.”
He also had envisaged the development of Harris’s old egg store into a craft village.
Residents and business owners
Also addressing the meeting, Mr Harvey said they had already asked residents and business owners for their ideas. “We have done the ground work in this regard and have talked to the property owners.”
Highlighting the late Ms Moynihan’s plan, the Town Mayor urged the new committee to examine it and see if they could revise parts of it for the Church Lane.
“As far as the Lower Main Street area was concerned, that plan never came to pass but it would be worth looking at again,” indicated Cllr Blake who also called for the re-establishment of a coffee shop and bakery such as the now defunct Bakersville which in itself had attracted busloads to the area before its closure.
Among the other points raised at the public meeting was a reminder from businessman Peter Cutliffe that the proposed regeneration programme should not be taken in isolation from the Main Street which had suffered in business terms over the past few years.
Declan O’Carroll suggested that the Letterkenny Institute of Technology should be contacted with a view to involving some of its departments in drawing up initiatives for small business enterprises on the Church Lane.
Describing himself as one of the few remaining residents on the Church Lane, Michael McElwee revealed that footfall on the street in the evenings was “quite amazing” with tourists walking up to view the Cathedral and Conwal Parish Church.
A former businesswoman on the Church Lane, Maria Connolly said some of the buildings there were in a “very bad state of repair”.
Unless the people who owned the properties were prepared to put in a “major investment” the plans would be difficult to follow through.
Councillor Jimmy Kavanagh – the meeting was also attended by fellow Council representatives, Gerry McMonagle, Ciaran Brogan and Tom Crossan – agreed that some of the buildings were “falling apart” on the street.
He said that local Dail Deputy, Joe McHugh would be willing to organise a meeting with the relevant Minister to help the project push ahead.
The officer board elected on the night included chairperson, Angel Vanessa Gannon; Secretary, Donnan Harvey; Assistant Secretary, Oran Doherty; and P.R.O., Pat McArt. The posts of Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer were left open.
Speaking afterwards, chairperson of the Letterkenny Tidy Towns committee, Anne McGowan, voiced her organisation’s full support for the Save the Church Lane campaign. “It’s important that this street be regenerated in keeping with the other areas in the town that have been developed,” she said.