It has been a bad couple of weeks for Athlone from a business perspective with two closures in the town's food and hospitality sector.
On October 21, The Station House Bistro announced via its Facebook page that it had closed its doors for good after a little more than a year in business. The message read: "Thanks so, so much for the support over the last year. Everyone put a huge effort into The Station House but unfortunately we came up short. I would like to thank our wonderful staff and our super, super customers."
On Friday, October 28, A Slice of Life, a business that has been part of the commercial fabric of Athlone for 22 years, announced that it would close its doors for the last time on Friday, November 4.
In a message posted on the business Facebook page, owner Leigh Denby said: "With very heavy hearts myself and Elaine have had to make the decision to close A Slice of Life restaurant. Due to the current downturn of trade in Connaught Street, we had no alternative. We are devastated to say goodbye to our wonderful staff, fantastic customers and many, many friends that we have made over the past 22 years. We are absolutely overwhelmed by the support of our customers over the past week. We will close the doors of the Slice for the very last time on Friday, November 4."
Speaking this week, Fine Gael councillor John Dolan said he was shocked by the news. "I am particularly disappointed for Connaught Street," he said. "It is a street that has suffered a lot. At council level, we are going to have to put in a lot of effort to try and reinvigorate it. When you see a business as central to Connaught Street as A Slice of Life closing, the warning signs are there, and we need to make a move soon to try rejuvenate it."
Fianna Fáil councillor Aengus O'Rourke said the closures say a lot about the state of the Irish economy at large: "It shows that we still have a very fragile economy, particularly for small businesses," he said. "At times it is frustrating to hear talk of recovery when, and in particular in rural Ireland, small business is still struggling. That has been shown in the closures of two very well-known and well-respected businesses here in town."
Cllr O'Rourke said he understands that areas like Connaught and Pearse Street are in need of a boost: "The exit of several key businesses has left a hole in the commercial life of Connaught Street, and Pearse Street is also suffering a great deal with vacancies. I am bringing a motion to the council at our next meeting to engage with all stakeholders to come up with a plan to in some way revitalise these general areas.
"Whether this comes from some sort of national initiative or local authority initiative, we certainly need to take action. Maybe it will require a completely fresh approach. Maybe Connaught Street would benefit from more people living on the street. A lot of the idle premises there are former businesses. Converting some of these to apartments or residential units might help bring vibrancy back to the street, and it is something I would like to explore."