ACCORDING to Frank Greene, president of the Chamber of Commerce and manager of the local AIB branch, Castlebar’s embracing of the Information Age Town vision actually predated the announcement of Telecom Eireann ‘s sponsorship by some six months.
"Such was the enthusiastic reaction of some members of Castlebar Chamber of Commerce to the challenge and potential of the concept floated by Telecom chief executive Alfie Kane in his October Irish Management Institute Conference speech that they decided to convene a special public meeting to discuss the idea when they returned home.
"In remarkable and unprecedented move, on 29 November, ( the night of a very important soccer match on television ) over 100 leaders of business and community life in Castlebar turned out to hear more about the concept and to see how, if at all, it might be converted into a tangible reality," adds Greene.
The reaction of the people who attended the meeting was uniformly enthusiastic. By the following day, a steering committee had been set up and the research began in earnest.
This was despite the fact that not only had the Telecom sponsorship deal not been announced, it would be many months before the project design was even conceived or the application criteria fully worked out.
By March local enthusiasm remained undiminished. In fact a second public meeting organised that month by the Chamber of Commerce proved even more successful. It attracted over 400 interested supporters from all walks of life. Within a short space of time, subcommittees drawn from 115 volunteers had been formed.
Not for the first time, the people of Castlebar had proved themselves unafraid of taking on a challenge or embarking on a project others might have considered impossible.
Two such examples were their determination to proceed with the construction of Knock Airport against widespread opposition, a decision which has since proved both successful and profitable. In 1983, they managed to engineer the rescue of the Travenol plant, which at that time was the town’s biggest employer. That closure decision reversal made history. It was the first ever such reversal by a multinational.
That same blend of energy and determination has now been applied to a whole range of projects that go to make up Castlebar’s bid to become Ireland’s Information Age Town. Examples of the Steering committee’s success to date have included persuading Mayo County Council to allocate a 25 acre site to develop a Digital Park incorporating a nursery facility for multimedia, webpage design/software companies and business training services.
The committee secured £500,000 in BES funding commitments to develop the first of several units on that site. Members of the Mayo diaspora in Boston have offered to sponsor four Information Technology scholarships to US universities at a cost of $120,000, and have offered $100,000 in local training grant aid.
Elsewhere, Irish people working in high-tech companies around the world have been volunteering their expertise to fine tune the business proposals designed to exploit the commercial opportunities that winning the Information Age Town Competition would afford.
Regina McGarrigle is the task force project manager and chairperson of the parish council and has been running a highly successful international financial publishing company on the internet from her Castlebar base for several years. She is well placed to comment on the level of support the proposals have garnered.
"We have also had a lot of assistance from local business. For example, Irish Nationwide donated a premises that we converted into the country’s first Information Town visitors centre in Ellison Street. That has attracted more than 7,000 visitors since April.
"The Community Development Association and the Parish Council between them have contributed over £100,000. We couldn’t have done that if we didn’t have the backing of the entire community. Another manifestation of the level of backing we are enjoying was a public demonstration on the streets of Castlebar on 25 August last by over 5,000 people, anxious to show their support for the project.
"The level of commitment and enthusiasm of those directly involved has not diminished since we first embarked on this project 10 months ago.
"The steering committee has invested 14,000 man hours in developing various ideas and projects and everybody abandoned their annual summer holidays to devote themselves to fine-tuning the final elements in our presentation.
"People here are really giving this project their all. More so than any other county in Ireland, we have been badly affected by emigration. Between 1926 and 1996, the population of Mayo had been declining steadily.
"The projects we have been proposing as part of our bid to be chosen as the Information Age Town are designed that people do not have to emigrate from the west. We intend to eliminate our peripherality and bring Castlebar to the centre of Europe. Mayo have missed out on the industrial revolution, but we have no intention of missing out on the Electronic Revolution,” says McGarrigle.
"We have very specific plans in mind should we be lucky enough to be chosen. We have been having extensive negotiations with telemarketing companies and are confident a number of them would be prepared to establish a large telesales/call centre here. That is because our infrastructure is solid and we have track record with industry.
"We have a highly educated work-force and many of them are multi-lingual. We have also had calls and visits from several very senior industry specialists now working abroad who are anxious to return to Ireland and bring their expertise with them. Many of them have helped us with ideas and background research," she adds.
So what else, in the opinion of the 14- member taskforce, gives Castlebar the edge over it’s shortlisted competitors? In it’s submission document, among a list of credentials and advantages’ they cite the following:
This is known in the business as ‘interactive Television’. That new service will offer significant enhanced viewing, thematic channels, video on demand, interactive services such as home shopping, electronic banking, tourism services, internet/intranet and, eventually, will accept smart card payments.
All of these advances will arrive via the proposed fibre optic facilities that every home in Ireland’s Information Age Town will have. Castlebar has a significant advantage in that it is currently a Digital green fields site. This unique approach will ensure that the entire community will benefit from the Telecom project. Members of the Steering Committee add that the number and range of commercial and job creation possibilities that would accrue from being chosen as Ireland’s Information Age Town are almost incalculable.
"We have ideas to burn. Everything from a prototype technology designed to help elderly and vulnerable people in Castlebar alert assistance through a phone connection to a 24hr monitoring station, to an online meals on wheels service to tele-learning for the disabled. We can help reduce the cost to business of travel expenses-because of easy access to videoconferencing and encourage increasing use of email. We can create a virtual Castlebar and virtual Mayo over the Internet for members of the Mayo diaspora and other people unlucky enough not to live here" they conclude.