November brought good news for Cookstown’s manufacuturing and construction sectors, with confirmation funds for a new police academy have been secured. Cookstown council is taking an active role in helping the towns small businesses. Michelle Loughran looks at the reasons why the district should not forget its rural roots …
Cookstown recently received a welcome economic boost with news that funding for a new training college has been secured.
Based outside the town, Desertcret College will provide training facilities for the PSNI, Prison and Fire Services.
Cookstown council estimates this should create around 305 construction jobs. This is a positive development for the entire district.
At the height of the recession in 2009 unemployment rose by 190% across the Cookstown district.
The councils’ economic review for 2010 stated these phenomenally high levels of unemployment were “mainly due to Cookstown having one of the highest proportions of employment in the manufacturing, construction and retail sectors in NI”.
With construction on the college due to start in 2013 there is a real possibility it could be too late for the large manufacturing and construction sector which is already struggling.
Ciaran Higgins, manager of the towns Enterprise Centre said the area has been hit with job losses because Cookstown has a relatively small public service sector.
He said: “One of the reasons this region is one of the more entrepreneurial in Northern Ireland is going back 20 years there was a lack of public sector jobs and investment.”
This developed the mantra if you wanted a job “you go out and make work for yourself”.
One of the growing problems rural manufacturing companies face is consumer buying patterns are changing. As incomes are stretched further people now want cheap products and these are not always available locally.
Martin Loughran runs a small furniture business specialising in bespoke hand-made kitchens. Based outside Cookstown production has gradually slumped from 2009 and order levels are not improving.
Martin said: “People are not coming forward, quality work has gone, the customer base has dropped completely and that’s the type of work we relied on.”
Customers now want budget kitchens for a variety of reasons. He said: “People are being careful and are not prepared to spend excess money”.
Concerns about job security remain prominent and rising inflation has squeezed disposable income. Consumer tastes have also evolved and products that can be changed regularly are now fashionable.
Martin recognises this change and has adapted his product portfolio to include a cheaper range of kitchens but finds it difficult to compete with large competitors like Ikea or Homebase which has a Cookstown store.
These problems are reflective of those most independent manufacturing businesses now face as competition for work has increased dramatically. The threat of a double dipped recession means pressures are unlikely to ease anytime soon.
Cookstown Council has developed schemes to help local businesses and increase visitor levels. Their most successful campaign has promoted the town using a series of advertisements and brochures under the slogan, Cookstown- looking good looking great.
The councils’ main objective is to reaffirm the town’s position as the retail capital of Mid-Ulster. A council report said: “The council continues to place the revitalisation of Cookstown town centre and the wider district as one of its top priorities in the development of the economic and social fabric of the local economy.”
From 2003 the council has funded a shop front improvement and paint scheme which has helped 26 shop owners improve their business façade. The living over the shop scheme run in partnership with the Housing Executive has provided grant aid for shop owners to convert space above shops into residential accommodation.
Council money has been spent on new signage and the main roundabout entering the town has been given a makeover. This has lead to Cookstown being crowned Ireland’s best kept large town 2011.
Chairman of Cookstown Council, Sean Clarke confirmed 79% of VAT registered businesses in the district are in rural areas.
Council money has been targeted at attracting custom to the town centre where the retail sector is the main beneficiary. But, are the rural businesses which form the backbone of the district being neglected?
Sean Clarke says that is not the case: “Rural businesses have the same opportunities as those in the town centre. The onus is not on a council to get involved in economic development and Cooksotwn is one of the leading councils in promoting local businesses.”
He said the council are battling for better broadband access and there “is a big effort to improve the infrastructure in rural areas where it is especially poor”.
Fiona McKeown, the council’s economic development manager said: “Cookstown takes the lead to assist rural businesses. The South West Regional Development division provides grants of up to £50000 to help those who want to diversify their products or invest in new equipment.”
It is encouraging to see the council positively using their influence and resources to help the local economy. UK economic growth is stagnating and profitability is becoming harder for small businesses to sustain: so an all hands to the deck approach is needed.
The enterprise centre currently has 100% occupancy and, surprisingly, new businesses have started in 2011. Ciaran Higgins said: “There is no other work available and perhaps a positive to come out of a recession is the creation of new businesses which will bring new jobs down the line.”
Cookstown district is an industrious part of Northern Ireland with a skilled workforce and entrepreneurial spirit that has helped establish many independent companies.
The goal is to make Cookstown Mid Ulster’s retail capital, but it is vital the council does not forget its rural businesses. As losing manufacturing and construction businesses would have a greater bearing on what the Cookstown district has to offer.