“We will do it without you,” is the threat Mullingar traders made to Westmeath County Council as they search for proactive solutions to the crisis of the recession.
Frustrated businesspeople proposed protests, a rates strike and a “go it alone” strategy in the face of what they say is the council’s failure to adequately deal with the issues they face.
The meeting was organised by president of Mullingar Chamber of Commerce Pat Whelan, who was himself frustrated by the reception he got at his recent meeting with council officials.
The crowd of around 90 business people applauded his decision to run the meeting without elected officials and allow them express themselves without political intervention.
There was agreement with Mullingar’s most passionate citizen Millie Walsh that “we have the ingredients of a large cake, we just need to pull together to make it successfully”.
But there were still complaints about issues outside of traders’ control - parking, rates, customer service at the council, favouring Athlone over Mullingar, and a failure to adequately promote Mullingar’s tourist product.
“If you want to kill it, let the county council in Mullingar run it,” was the view of former Dragon’s Den contestant Michael McDonald, when those present heard Mullingar.ie domain is owned by the council.
Ben Dolan said the lack of a town website for the Joe Dolan festival made life difficult and local web designers and photographers offered their services for free to develop an independent town website.
Auctioneer Pat Davitt articulated the concern of many traders, wondering how rates are calculated, saying similar buildings in different towns are rated differently.
“There’s no equilibrium in the rates whatsoever,” he concluded.
“And the system that they’re rating them on is absolutely criminal,” he said, citing bills of between €3-5,000.
Waste management expert Mick Wallace described the extraordinary situation of different buildings in industrial estates having inexplicably different rates.
He was also severely critical of the council’s customer service, comparing long waiting times to see Westmeath officials with more hospitable and respectful treatment in Offaly and Longford where he also does business.
He was incensed that the council uses a legal firm outside of the town to deal with some of its business and this tuned in with a general desire that those who live and work in Mullingar use services in the town as far as possible.
Ronan Byrne of the Bloomfield House hotel suggested a marketing campaign using qualified staff from local hotels and wondered if passionate Mullingar man Michael O’Leary might consider a page in Ryanair’s inflight magazine to advertise his home town.
Angela Maher, who is not in business but attended the meeting as a concerned local, said it’s time to change the language of “approaching the council”.
“We have to remember we are the bosses of Westmeath County Council,” she said, pointing out it’s time they were told what to do, like open their staff car park for free public use on Saturdays.