independent

Monday 16 September 2019

The answer to boarded up shops lies close to home

By Fintan Lambe

ONE of my first summer jobs as a teenager was in a local neighbourhood supermarket on the outskirts of my hometown of Monaghan.

Years later, as the Celtic Tiger was breathing its last, the shop closed, after a developer persuaded the owners to take a well deserved early retirement.

The developer had plans for 16 apartments and a smaller shop. They didn't materialise.

For the past eight years, residents in the surrounding housing estates were forced to take a fifteen minute walk, or drive or cycle to town, even when they wanted a litre of milk or a newspaper.

As was the case in many suburbs around the country, with the economy sinking lower and lower, the local residents passed their boarded up local neighbourhood shop every day, and wondered if it would ever open.

The good news is, the shop is open again, and it's thriving. The answer to people's prayers didn't come in the form of a cash rich entrepreneur happening to select their neighbourhood. It came from within the local community itself.

Teach na Daoine, the local family resource centre which was set up in 2001, opened a new facility on a neighbouring site in 2005. The centre offers a range of services to the community including childcare, counselling, community education, family support, and community development support.

Two years ago, as they watched locals attempting in vain to protect the boarded up shop from vandalism, they decided to enter the retail business.

Packie Kelly, project co-ordinator at the Family Resource Centre, explained how they made enquiries, and found that Nama now owned the building. After a bidding process, they used some of their cash reserves to purchase the 2,000 metre long shop and adjoining house and surrounding lands.

They got a loan from the Ulster Community Investment Trust to kit out the shop and the house, and looked around for a retail franchise before settling on Costcutter.

The revitalised shop which opened last August is now open seven days a week, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and is run on a not-for-profit basis, and any profits that might come down the line, will be invested in projects to benefit the local community such as education bursaries. The adjoining house now offers a full-time early school leaver training programme.

Workers on community employment schemes helped kit out the shop and house, and there's now a staff of fourteen in the shop alone.

'We deliberately looked at employing as many people as we could,' said Packie. 'We also employed four people with intellectual disabilities as they often find it hard to get work.'

The shop has a full range of groceries, newspapers, fuel, an off licence, and a deli counter serving hot and cold food, which offers hot carvery dinners for just €7.

'People are absolutely delighted to see it open again,' said Packie. 'Business has grown steadily and we now just have to persuade more people to travel out from town to shop with us. We'll be offering the cheapest coal in Monaghan soon.'

'There is a risk in all of this, but communities are very good at taking risks,' he added.

They say it's always better to light a candle, than curse the dark, and one community up north has certainly shown how bright that light can be.

- Fintan Lambe

Wexford People

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