Belfast Telegraph

Villagers seize the initiative and keep resort in business

A Co Antrim seaside village has lifted itself out of the economic doldrums through residents working together for a new outlet. Nigel Tilson reports

When the only shop in Ballygally closed and was demolished in May 2008, and then the local post office shut in January the following year, the residents of the Co Antrim seaside village got their thinking caps on.

Instead of accepting that there was nothing could be done about it - the owner had told locals for some time that he wanted to replace the shop with apartments - they decided it was time to breathe fresh economic life into their surroundings.

The members of Ballygally Community Development Association approached Larne Borough Council in a bid to get a new village shop.

They decided the main village car park, on the Antrim Coast road, would be an ideal location for a small supermarket, so they applied for planning permission and by May 2009 they had it in the bag and had also obtained an agreement for the lease of space to build in the car park.

Around that time they also spotted a feature on BBC Television's One Show highlighting the Big Lottery Fund's Village SOS programme, which aims to help villages across the UK that have lost vital facilities in recent years.

The association members agreed they should apply for Village SOS funding for a socio-economic project which included the community hall. Retired lecturer Jim McCurdy, who taught business studies and accountancy for 28 years, agreed to lead the charge. He applied for financial support in August 2009.

From around 1,000 applications, Ballygally was told in November of that year it was one of 28 villages on an initial shortlist, which in turn would be whittled down to 10 that would receive funding.

At the November 2009 stage the association was told it would have to appoint a village champion to help it prepare a business plan and it got a chance to interview potential candidates in Manchester.

Step forward Richard Long, who had answered a Big Lottery Fund call for mentors through an ad in a national newspaper. After meetings with around 10 villages he decided he wanted to work with the Ballygally team - and the feeling was mutual.

Richard, who hails from Winchester in Hampshire, was picked by the association to be their village champion for his retail skills and general business experience.

The successful businessman spent the early part of his career in engineering, designing and manufacturing specialised machine tools, but he spent the bulk of his working life in one of the largest independent news wholesalers and retailers in the UK, transforming a small family company into an operation with an annual turnover of £45m.

Richard and the Ballygally committee quickly got down to work and put together a comprehensive bid to the Big Lottery Fund for financial support.

"I acted as an intermediary between the various parties involved and focused on the legal issues. I also helped to pull together and present the overall business plan. There was a plethora of paperwork with 50 or more policies to be written," he explained.

The Big Lottery Fund told the committee members in May 2010 that their bid for funding of £372,000 towards the overall project had been successful.

And alongside that application the village association sought funding from Larne Borough Council for community facilities.

The local council duly agreed to provide around £260,000 towards the creation of a new community hall as part of the development, while the Department for Agriculture and Rural Development weighed in with £109,000 to support the community element through an EU programme.

By July last year the committee had accumulated over £700,000 to spend on the building and, following a tendering process, appointed Belfast company FB McKee to construct it.

The keys were handed over to the committee last month and this week sees its 'soft launch'. The official opening will be staged in a few months time.

Richard Long, who has always been heavily involved in the community in Winchester, said he was pleased the project has resulted in a superb new facility for Ballygally.

"We had plenty of ups and downs and there were lots of obstacles to overcome, but it was great to see all the threads coming together," he said.

And Jim McCurdy is delighted with the outcome, too. "Village SOS is a fantastic programme. It has certainly given Ballygally a huge lift," he said.

The Big Lottery Fund has launched Village SOS Active - a campaign to help Northern Ireland communities buck the trend of rural decline and revive village life by starting up new business ventures.

Building on the success of the Village SOS programme, the campaign also includes the £5m Village SOS Active competition which has awards of £10,000 to £30,000 for the brightest ideas for new community enterprises that will make a lasting difference in rural communities.

To find out more visit villagesos.org.uk, which will offer a range of tools and information to help people bring their ideas for community business to life.The council duly agreed to provide around £260,000 towards a new community hall

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