RADICAL action, on a scale not yet envisaged, is needed if Dromore and towns like it are to stand any chance of a turnaround in their flagging fortunes.
So says former district councillor, Drew Nelson, who, while this week backing calls for a let-up in the development restrictions imposed by Dromore’s Conservation Status, believes any such relaxation, even coupled with already planned restoration measures, amounts to only a fraction of what’s needed to answer Dromore’s woes.
Dromore, he said, could well be the worst town in all of Northern Ireland in terms of the percentage of unused commercial space; it was suffering from every possible economic misfortune, while at the same time unable to cash in on what he believed to be its greatest asset, industrial land.
“Everything you could think of that could hit a town centre is happening in Dromore,” he said. “It’s between Banbridge and Lisburn - district towns - which is killing Dromore shops, and it can’t see the upside of the A1 corridor because, as I understand it, it’s not government policy to create advance industrial space except in a district town, which Dromore is not.
“The one thing that could benefit the town, industrial space, is no good to it. I honestly believe there are a thousand jobs for Dromore if we created an industrial area on the bypass.”
The well-known local solicitor’s comments came as news emerged of Dromore Partnership plans to meet with the Environment minister in the hope of winning a rethink on the town’s Conservation Status.
Conferred on Dromore 20 years ago this month and expected to draw down significant grant-aid, that status is now viewed as an obstacle to development among property-owners denied the less expensive option of demolition and newbuild and bound instead to retain existing buildings, many of them in a state of advanced disrepair.
As a sitting district councillor in 1992, Mr. Nelson was among those who pursued Conservation Status for Dromore.
“I was on the council when the Conservation Area was proposed and established,” he said, “and it was very much sold to us that it would open up sources of funding and would be good for development in town. In my opinion that hasn’t happened, because the added restrictions on development outweigh any additional funding sources, with a negative effect on the development of the town centre.
“There are very powerful forces at work in society, forces almost unstoppable in respect of commercial development and changes in society.
“Dromore has changed, in terms of how people shop from Dromore, how they do business, how they spend their lesiure time; it has changed very dramatically in the last 30 years and it has had a very detrimental effect on the town centre.
“The statutory authorities have been unable to keep up with those changes and Dromore provides a good example of how a town centre has been left behind
“The things I’m hearing about, the cosmetic changes that are planned, and even the Conservation Status, aren’t even five per cent of the level of action required.
“If Dromore town centre is to be turned around we need very, very radical action and I say that as someone who has lived all his life just outside town and worked full-time in town for 30 years as well as being involved with things such as the Chamber of Commerce and the council.
“If Dromore didn’t make it during the property boom then it won’t happen now and it’ll never happen unless there’s really radical action.”
Part of the problem, said Mr. Nelson, was that responsibility for what was required was spread among different departments and there was no one person who could make all the changes needed.
“Someone needs to lead it,” he said, “but it really does require co-operation on the part of several central government departments and other agencies.
“It probably needs the creation of a specialised agency, created with Stormont legislation, to do something for a number of town centres, some sort of statutory authority with the powers, and a budget, to look at our town centres.
“I hope local politicians can think in those terms.”