The phrase ‘going to the dogs’ is normally used in a derogatory manner, but the entrepreneurs behind the new Drumbo Park greyhound racing stadium near Lisburn have given it an entirely different meaning.
They have provided a facility to rival anything in the sport throughout the island and giving punters, and those who just want a fun night out, the opportunity to enjoy themselves in surroundings befitting the 21st century.
The businessmen, essentially, are betting on the future of Northern Ireland. The new political climate and, credit crunch notwithstanding, greater air of confidence evident in the province provides them with the foundation for their enterprise. In its own way, the £3m development is as symbolic as the Waterfront Hall or Odyssey Arena, demonstrating that this is a society looking to the future and not mired in the past.
The crowds evident on the first two nights of racing, which began without any great fanfare of publicity, show that there is a market for the sport. The appeal of Drumbo Park is widespread. Die-hard fans and punters are attracted by the racing, but the extensive hospitality areas including bars and a 300-seat restaurant and the televised link-up to other greyhound racing events in the Republic mean that those just wanting a social night out are catered for.
There is, perhaps, a message for Northern Ireland’s politicians in the opening of the new facility. It has been developed solely through private financing. The developers have taken a risk, but feel the odds are in their favour. That is in sharp contrast to the political dithering over the development of a national sports stadium at the former Maze Prison site, not that far away from Drumbo Park.
The Maze site has been given to the politicians free of charge, but political in-fighting and debate over other potential sites means that a great opportunity to develop another iconic facility is being jeopardised.
The greyhound track can also become part of the tourism infrastructure of Northern Ireland. Sport, in all its forms, is a powerful lure to visitors who want to enjoy something a little different from the usual tourist trail of natural attractions. One has only to look at the tens of thousands of people who attended the Galway festival of racing this week, or the large numbers attracted to Down Royal horse racing to see the value of sport.
Northern Ireland’s international image is changing. For possibly the first time ever, immigration to the province is now outstripping emigration. While there is still concern that some of our brightest young talent leaves the province to go to university, never to return, the figures show that more and more people are remaining here and more and more people from other EU countries are coming here for a new life.
These migrant workers play an important part in the economic revival of Northern Ireland and we should be delighted that they feel the province is a place worth investing their skills and talent in. In the last three years, thenumber of emigrants are equal to the population of a town like Coleraine. That is a very positive statement on life here.
Years of violence, lack of investment and introspection means that we sometimes forget that Northern Ireland still has a lot to offer both its own citizens and those who come here. We need more people with the enterprise, vision and courage shown by the developers of Drumbo Park to tip the odds further in our favour.