The £7 million business development centre plan for Thomas Street has made the short list of the European Union’s Peace IV Fund. And the chairman of Portadown 2000, the group behind the project, believes it will act as a catalyst for a major regeneration of the town.
The centre – on a site at the rear of the existing Millennium Court in William Street – will provide comprehensive services for business and industry, and would be one of Northern Ireland’s last EU- granted projects prior to Brexit.
Chairman Mr Brian Walker is calling for the creation of a public sector-led group to transform various aspects of the town in the light of the forthcoming Brexit move, “like the turn-around of the industrial sector within the past 30-40 years.”
“In the past, Portadown lost industrial giants like Wade Pottery, Ulster Laces, Denny’s, the Foundry, the linen trade,” he said. “Yet it gained food giants like Moy Park, pharmaceuticals like Almac, the general food industry and engineering. Such has been the transformation that Portadown is now third on Northern Ireland’s industrial league table, to Belfast and Londonderry.
“This was brought about by sheer hard work, both on the local front and by lobbying on the political front. The town was quickly brought back to life after the 1993 bomb tore out its heart – with the public sector at the helm, led brilliantly by the late borough council CEO Eric McKinley. This resurrection can happen again.”
He added that the “demise” of Portadown was brought home to him on St Patrick’s Day “when someone asked me where the bus centre was. I had to reply there wasn’t one, and this summed up the demise of Portadown, which hasn’t been arrested, despite the publication of so many consultants’ reports over the years.”
He went on, “Change must come from within. On the retail front, we must speak to the successful local traders, who used to proliferate in the Portadown, once the Hub of the North. We must listen to the likes of Castle Hardware, outfitters like McMahon’s and McQuillan’s, Knox’s and Mallon’s Butchers. Many still trade healthily, and encouragement must be available for others to follow suit.
“And the new body must travel to the likes of Argos, the First Trust Bank and other multi-nationals shutting up shop, and create good reasons why they must stay. For example, a group of us canvassed for natural gas in the area some years ago, and now it is well established and will more than pay for itself within a few years.”
Mr Walker insisted that local public representatives and officers must take the initiative, calling in bodies like the Chamber of Commerce, his own Portadown 2000, MLAs (or representative of Direct Rule, should that be the case), industry and retailing among them.
“The shopping basket must be a large one,” he said. “In the case of public transport, they must look towards the revival of the train services to Armagh and to the North West of the province. In recreation and education, searching question must be asked about provision in Portadown.
“For example, I believe the pending closure of Portadown Swimming Pool (Cascades) is a wrong decision. A deprived part of Portadown is losing a vital facility to make way for the futuristic Leisure Complex in the centre of Craigavon, mainly reachable only by car. There must be local, community leisure facilities created.
“Portadown College was promised a re-build, but various impedimenta – including opposition of the Dickson Plan – have been placed in its way. Again, on education, the new Southern Regional College is being built in the centre of Craigavon with Portadown again the loser.
“I’m not indulging in the blame game. I’m not pointing the finger at the public sector, community divisions, politicians, retailers, or anyone else. We all share responsibility. I also have to say we could well do without traffic wardens, and the number of traffic lights in the town could be reduced to attract more shoppers.
“We need co-ordinated action between all sectors if we are to seize the initiative. The answer lies with local people, both in the private and public sector – people who are wholeheartedly committed to the regeneration of the town. It was they who acted after the 1993 bomb, when bureaucratic tape was cut and action was immediate.
“We don’t need more layers of management – we need a strategic vision. The former Hub of the North could start with an integrated public transport facility – bus services married to a comprehensive rail network.”
He concluded, “The town needs a new organisation which is wholehearted committed to the promotion of Portadown and nothing else. It must ensure that it welcomes every stranger from every background – for example, 14 languages are spoken in Portadown. The new body must encourage a dynamic economy and dynamic services deliverable on the ground.”