Posted on Monday 17 December 2012 by Ulster Business
Its merchant history and entrepreneurial spirit are still very much part of the fabric of the modern city Newry whose economy continues to be dominated by the retail sector.
In recent years the city has been in the process of reinvention, invigorating it's city centre and the streetscape of the surrounding towns and villages while investing heavily in its tourism and leisure products.
Over £8m has been driven into public realm schemes and tourist facilities as part of a strategic approach to the business of tourism in the last five years.
This summer the city celebrated a decade since being granted City status. Much has happened during those years, from the growth of the retail sector and the boom times of the Southern shoppers which came in their thousands attracted by the favourable exchange rates, to the more recent challenge of the recession, unemployment and empty retail units. With a high dependence on retail (some 21.7% compared to the NI average of 18.1%) the local economy certainly took a knock.
Set against that backdrop and in the context of spending cuts in the public and private sector, in October 2011 Newry and Mourne District Council with the Department of Social Development (DSD) published a shared vision for the future of the city – a Masterplan to prioritise and plan the projects that would invigorate and sustain the city's future - including developing its appeal to visitors.
Several of these short term projects are now coming to fruition including a number of public realm schemes to integrate city centre retail and enhance the shopping experience.
Shopping is a significant tourism draw with the Quays Shopping & Leisure Centre and Buttercrane Shopping Centre drawing big brand names like Sainsbury, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer which mix with a range of boutique brands and local stores, bars and restaurants in the old quarters of Monaghan Street (Creamery Quarter) and Hill Street (Cathedral Quarter) – some of which have been trading in the city for over 100 years.
Tesco has also recently announced plans to open an Extra Store employing 300 staff and Costa Coffee is constructing its 1301st UK store on the outskirts of the city at Damolly Retail Park, home to B&Q, Next, Smyths and Halfords.
THE BORDER FOCUS
Tourism and cross border tourism is a key strategic focus for the Council.
Newry is nestled between the Mourne Mountains and the Ring of Gullion both of which are designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It lies in the shadow of the Cooley Mountains while to the south you'll find the picturesque Carlingford Lough.
Gerard McGivern, Director of District Development says there are so many projects underway across the district it's a challenging and exciting time.
"From launching a major Outdoor Adventure Centre in Slieve Gullion, South Armagh, to the development of major bike trails in Rostrevor Forest at Kilbroney; staging major events in Newry and overseeing a number of Public Realm improvements in Newry, Kilkeel and Warrenpoint – it's fair to say there is a lot going on," he said.
"It's all part of an ongoing Tourism Strategy to develop and promote the Newry and Mourne District within the Louth/Newry and Mourne Region," he said.
"In terms of capital spend on Public Realm schemes, outdoor recreation, mountain bike tracks and tourism facilities, there has been in excess of £8m spend in this region over the past 5-6 years."
Newry and Mourne District attracted over 93,000 out-of-state visitors in 2009, up from almost 80,000 in 2007 with visitors generating almost 290,000 bed-nights in 2009 and expenditure of over £12m in that year.
In relative terms, the Newry and Mourne area attracted 3% of all tourist trips in NI in 2009; 2.7% of all tourist nights in NI; and 2.5% of all tourism spending in that year. These are figures that new marketing initiatives and investments aim to dramatically improve.
Two major projects to capture tourist attention have been borne from a unique alliance Newry and Mourne Council have created with their neighbour in the south, Louth Local Authorities.
Gerard explains: "We've have a Memorandum of Understanding between Newry and Mourne District Council and Louth Local Authorities which is widely acknowledged as a first in Europe. This has been a crucial forum to support and promote the economic development and competitiveness of this region. It's also supported the development of major cross border tourism initiative – namely the Mournes-Cooley-Ring of Gullion Geotourism Project which has secured Interreg Funding of €1.4m and the Narrow Water Bridge Project.
"We plan to develop the Geotourism brand – creating a unique destination at the heart of the Eastern seaboard corridor, stretching from the Boyne Valley through the Cooley Mountains and Ring of Gullion across Carlingford Lough and into the Mourne Mountains," he adds.
"As well as its breathtaking natural beauty, the area is filled with legends and folklore. We see huge potential for Geotourism and we want to market this project in 2014 to coincide with the opening of the Narrow Water Bridge."
The Bridge will link the coastal town of Warrenpoint in the North across Carlingford Lough to County Louth in the South. It's anticipated that the bridge will open the link from the Cooley region to the Mournes and ring of Gullion, creating a more accessible and compact destination for visitors.
The €18.3m cross border Narrow Water Bride Project, some 40 years after it was initially mooted, has now become a reality with the Interreg 4 (a) Steering Committee approving funding of €17.4m to the project this November.
Chairman of the Warrenpoint and Burren Chambers of commerce Jim Boylan, says in addition to the links it will create, the bridge itself will become a tourism destination – an iconic symbol for the area.
"The Bridge will facilitate further cooperation between tourism businesses of either side of Carlingford Lough and maximise the natural, cultural and built heritage assets of both regions.
"As a Chamber, we're now focusing on lobbying to ensure that this area attracts businesses to the town and capitalises on our natural assets. The bridge will open access to Kilbroney Park with its' new Mountain Bike Trail and the Mourne Mountains. There are so many opportunities to develop walking and cycling and marine tourism, as well as stories of the myths and legends associated with the area and our strong World War II history.
"The Bridge has been a collaborative approach with Louth Local Authorities and Newry and Mourne under their unique Memorandum of Understanding. Working with them, we want to see tourism as the number one priority and to make our area and the bridge a 'must see'," he said.
Growth scenarios for the impact of the Narrow Water Bridge on tourism expenditure in Co. Louth and Newry and Mourne range from 5.5% - 8.0% which would see a rise of between €88.7m and €93m in a single year (depending on the level of growth). The impact on employment would also be significant with a potential for up to 248 new jobs being created.
Mr Boylan says the impact of the Bridge has already being felt, as three vacant entertainment premises in Warrenpoint were sold within a week of the funding announcement being made.
The council have also secured the World Police and Fire Games 2013 Mountain Bike Down Hill and Cross Country Competition for Kilbroney Forest. This event will bring some 3,000 competitors/spectators to Rostrevor and introduce the new off road cycle trail to UK enthusiasts.
Dafydd Davis of Trails by Dafydd Davis – the consultant involved with the development and design of the Kilbroney Forest Mountain Bike Trails - sees huge potential for developing outdoor tourism in the region.
"The off road cycling market in Ireland in general is immature with only five purpose built trails in total but it's potentially a huge market. There is latent demand from a niche market of Irish mountain bike enthusiast but for this to make a major impact on the local economy they will need to attract overseas and UK visitors – and they will come, because Kilbroney is truly worth it," he said.
"I've been involved in this industry for over 20 years and I have to say that the product in Kilbroney is unrivalled for quality and landscape. The nature of the terrain gives way to such variety for the rider. Once word gets out, it will become iconic as an off road track."
Initial feasibility studies estimate 30,000 people will visit in year one with a conservative estimate of £1.5m income – other case studies from smaller projects show a 40% increase year on year in the first 3-5 years so the potential for growth is huge, Dafydd says.
"What's really important is not to treat Kilbroney in isolation – it needs to become part of destination and linked with the tracks, for example, at Castlewellan Park currently under development. The Forestry and key stakeholders need to safeguard the potential by expanding the product by offering other possible tracks through the Mournes."
With conservative estimates of 30,000 using the trail in 2014 and 800 hotel beds 75 self-catering units and 227 hostel beds available within Newry & Mourne, hotel developer Miceal Tinnelly of Shoreline Developments has been watching with interest.
Miceal owns a picturesque equestrian and camping site on 30 acres in Rostrevor. Last year outline planning permission was granted for a 50 bed hotel - 'The Seven Hills'- sited on the mountain side facing Carlingford Lough.
"There is a real gap in provision in Rostrevor. We have two four star hotels in Newcastle and Newry and less than 30 rooms in between from smaller providers. We want to create a 5 star hotel offering here in Rostrevor to capitalise on the tourism potential – at present we have planning permission for 50 bedrooms with scope for 100 bedrooms," Miceal explains.
"It's frustrating to attract tourists to visit this area to enjoy our festivals and events and natural attractions only to have them stay elsewhere.
We want to support our local economy by enabling tourists to stay here and in doing so create employment."
Newry and Mourne District Council and NI Tourism bodies are very supportive of the hotel project but Miceal needs capital funding of £14m to get the scheme into development.
"I'm confident that this investment will come, such is the interest in the area. The confirmation of the Bridge project and the development of Geo Tourism products will certainly bring tourists in their thousands and with it the demand for greater accommodation provision including a five star property."