The hole in the ground

24 September 2010 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Whatever one’s view might be of the cavernous site of the interrupted mixed use development project in the heart of Monaghan Town – and there are many colourful descriptions of it circulating in local parlance – there is no doubt that it stands as a powerful symbolic testament to this country’s alarming change in economic health.  Effulgent growth and ceaseless property-related development turned almost overnight, seemingly, into stasis and abandonment.  Economists speak figuratively of the “black hole” of Irish fiscal fortunes…Monaghan townspeople can point to a real-life one on their doorstep.
Commendable efforts were made at Monday night’s meeting of Monaghan Town Council to bring a sense of movement to what has become a troublingly moribund issue.  It is hopefully widely understood by now that this is not a local authority project, but a private sector enterprise.  Although some might still hold to the belief that ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ money has been swallowed up by the stalled excavation, this is not the case.  But the Town Council have a major stake in the development, a stake founded upon a form of quid pro quo agreement between the developers and the authority, with the Council facilitating the provision of the site for the project and getting in return the construction of what are badly needed new civic offices – as well as all the other ancillary benefits that would be expected to flow from having a major and multi-faceted new enterprise in the commercial heart of the town.
Arguably, however, local authority commitment to the realisation of this project runs deeper than the contractual.  The town’s public representatives and their executive, in endorsing the initial concept of the developers, made a brave judgement call which was founded, we imagine, on a progressive vision of the town’s future economic and social development.  They saw the project as fitting in with what Monaghan could aspire to be, in fact needed to be, as the 21st century progressed.
Horizons have now changed drastically, however, and the question of whether developments of this nature, even if they become significantly revised and phased as is the case with the one under discussion, are any longer a compatible fit with the contemporary urban landscape is one the pressure is mounting upon the town authority to resolve.
For a significant body of local opinion – colourfully but accurately articulated by the Independent councillor Seamus Treanor – the answer is a resounding NO.  Colr Treanor feels, and has always felt, that the Town Council should wash its hands of the project, have the ‘hole in the ground’ filled in and the area restored to the extensive car-parking zone it was before.  Colr Treanor sounded this note clearly and consistently during his 2009 local election campaigning, and his poll-topping performance testifies that it struck a resonant chord with many Monaghan people.
Some of Colr Treanor’s arguments relating the economic decline of the town to the limbo state of the development were hotly disputed during Monday night’s welcome Town Council discussion.  They are certainly contestable, but his core argument of widespread public disaffection with having this unsightly excavation and its dour screening in their midst rings true.  And it would be unwise for any local authority to cling too stubbornly to a vision that is not shared by the people who elect and sustain it.
Nonetheless the general feeling of the Council membership inclined towards persisting with the project for a time.  Their faith in the vision was founded upon what seem strong legal protections for the Council in the event of the project failing to materialise, and the equally strong-seeming assumption that businessmen who have already expended a great deal of money on a development are committed to carrying it through to some form of viable realisation and future operation.  As Colr Sean Conlon argued, Monaghan is no worse off than a great many Irish towns and cities where ambitious commercial developments have been belayed by the economic squall – and perhaps appreciably better off that those bequeathed with substantially or fully constructed ‘white elephants’ whose intended commercial uses are no longer applicable to the times.
Faith in Monaghan itself was at the core of Colr Mary Carroll’s contention that the Council should be showing more belief in the town’s ability to recover from recession, while her party colleague David Maxwell similarly argued that abandoning the project was an “easy option” which the Council might have cause to regret when more prosperous times return.
Weighing faith in the future against grim present-day realities and public concerns appears at the heart of the Town Council’s dilemma on this issue.  In the end it was a pragmatic suggestion from Town Manager Declan Nelson that gave some sense of movement to the debate.  His formula was that the developers be requested to adjust the phasing of their proposals to bring forward the temporary infilling of a portion of the excavation, thus enabling car-parking facilities to be restored adjacent to Dublin Street. If it is accepted, the move will offer some relief to the traders of this important commercial thoroughfare who had, earlier, in an in-committee session, met the Council in delegation to discuss the severe difficulties they are struggling to overcome in order to remain in business.
In the final analysis, it would seem somewhat ignominious for Monaghan Town if this project were eventually to be abandoned.  Ultimately, however, that determination will be made by the forces governing the availability of investment capital and the wider commercial marketplace.  For now, it is a question of faith, and it might be an equitable reciprocation of the faith the majority of the members of Monaghan Town Council continue to show in the mixed use project if its developers were to take steps to appraise the wider Monaghan public in detail of their future plans and timescale for progress.
Colr Seamus Treanor’s estimation that “99.9%” of the people of the town want to see the ‘hole in the ground’ gone might somewhat overstate the balance of opinion, but there could be little doubt of the current outcome if the future of this development were to be decided by public plebiscite.
The message for the developers seems clear: it is the people of Monaghan who need to be persuaded.

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