August 2008 seemed a long way off as members of the Church Street business community gathered in the Civic Centre on Monday evening to consider rejuvenation plans for the area.
While a number of concerns were raised about the proposed programme of improvements for the street, the phrase “one-way system” was no longer provoking the strong opposition it did when first introduced for a trial period eight years ago.
One speaker received a round of applause when he urged the council and townspeople to “grab this initiative and the money and pull people back into the town”.
“Safety is a big issue, with buggies and people spilling out onto the street. It is only a matter of time before there is an accident,” he added.
Former councillor Alan Shaw agreed, saying he could see huge advantages to the proposed system from both a family and business point of view.
Cyclists would be accommodated too, according to the consultants, with a westbound cycle lane on Church Street, cycle parking at the western end of the street, and a ‘trailhead’ at the castle to provide secure storage for bicycles and gear so visitors can access the town on foot.
Managing director of Burgess Department Store, Rosie Boles, thanked the council for involving the local business community at this stage of the project; however she was concerned that no data was available on improvements in footfall in towns where similar projects had been undertaken, and cautioned that clear signage would be needed to explain the new traffic system.
Concerns from local business owners about access in and out of The Bawn were assuaged by director of service Barry Kehoe, who said there would be no change in arrangements for businesses that require access for vehicles. A taxi rank would also remain in Church Street.
A number of speakers queried the lack of parking towards the western end of Church Street, with Senator Gabrielle McFadden, who was a vocal opponent of the one-way system when it was trialled in 2008, suggesting that people might not have time to drive halfway around the town just to access a business in Church Street.
“My worry is that the loop is too wide, and I worry that we are cutting off Connaught Street and Irishtown,” she added, and was echoed by other speakers who felt the system might direct people towards the shopping centres and discourage them from making the “long haul” back to Church Street.
However consultant Nicholas de Jong said the purpose of the improvements was to make Church Street a “destination”. “We want to use the whole of the street and make it an occasion,” he said.
“Church Street has a problem. It has high vacancy rates, the footpaths are unsafe and it is an unpleasant street to be in, and it shouldn’t be because it is of significant importance. It’s got to have a much more positive role.”
Athlone Municipal District manager Pat Keating said it was important that people feel they are fully informed, adding that the council would work with the local business community to minimise disruption during the works.