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Lough Boora Parklands voted Ireland's Best Place

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john.ocallaghan

Lough Boora Parklands won the prestigious Royal Town Planning Institute Ireland’s Best Places competition, it was announced last week.

The nationwide competition, organised by the RTPI, celebrates the places protected, planned or improved by town planners for communities. Almost 12,000 people voted on the shortlist of 10 places and Lough Boora impressively took 18% of the total votes cast. Tully Cross, the scenic village in Galway and Cork City, won second and third respectively.

Lough Boora now attracts over 100,000 visitors a year with its fabulous natural resources and biodiversity, visitor centre, cafe and extensive trails. On Friday last, President of the RTPI, John Acres made a presentation to the Offaly County Council planning team and others involved in the Parklands at its visitor centre.

Speaking at the event, Tom Egan, Park Manager, welcomed everyone to Lough Boora. “While this is primarily a Bord na Mona project, it’s important to emphasise this is a project that has grown and has worked in partnership with a whole range of partnerships. We started with a plan in 1996, and, the plan was lucky enough to get funding for an angling amenity, lakes and walkways.”

”We saw an opportunity to develop amenities for our local community and perhaps attract tourists. We came up with ideas, developed a plan and we got funding.” Work began with the digging of Loch an Dochas, which was opened in 1997 and things developed from there.

”For years, this was an industrial site, bare and we wondered if anyone would come out to the place. It was closed from people and we had a whole new way of thinking. We had some great people on board including the late Tom Feighery, who described Boora as a vast, open, unencumbered landscape with huge opportunity and he told us to look at the bigger picture and not to focus on just small pieces.”

According to Tom, the idea was then sown for a sculpture park and in 2001, the International Sculpture Symposium took place where seven huge pieces of work were created in Lough Boora. The hope is now that a piece of sculpture will be commissioned for Lough Boora next year in conjunction with Offaly County Council, according to Tom.

Tom then noted the building and opening of the multi-million pavilion and coffee shop at Lough Boora in 2013. “Once this building went up, our numbers have trebled,” he enthused. He also pointed out the exquisite fairy trail also the wonderful work of everyone to bring Lough Boora to where it is today. “Boora works because it’s a partnership,” he added.

Frank Heslin, Director of Services with Offaly County Council, congratulated Bord na Mona on behalf of the local authority. “I am delighted you have received this award and I would like to thank the members, the staff of both Bord na Mona and Offaly County Council, and the local community for making this the success that it is,” he said.

John Acres, President of the RTPI, endorsed the sentiments of the previous speakers and congratulated all involved in the parklands. “In particular, everyone who has worked so hard to bringing this scheme forward. All the best projects are about partnership, collaboration, working together over a very long period of time. That is what this is all about,” he enthused.

”Lough Boora Parklands is an exemplar of partnership working. Several agencies – Offaly County Council, Bord na Mona and the Irish Wildlife Trust – came together to transform a disused site into a remarkable tourist attraction like no other in Ireland. This shows the real value of planners being able to integrate approaches which balance the differing needs, challenges and opportunities for the park.”

In a statement on the exciting news, Damien English, TD, Minister of State for Housing and Urban Development said: “The selection, by the public, of the Lough Boora Parklands in the RTPI Ireland’s Best Places competition demonstrates that even the most rural parts of our beautiful country mean a great deal to Irish people. What is particularly striking about the parklands is how they demonstrate the potential of areas that were once used for a vibrant industrial purpose, fell into decline and now are in the process of being rediscovered for a new, exciting and sustainable purpose of great community, ecological and economic value. In many ways, the Lough Boora Parklands are a dynamic example of the potential that each and every part of our remarkable country can play in its sustainable development and as promoted by the National Planning Framework.”

Andrew Murray, Senior Planner at Offaly County Council, said: “Planners at Offaly County Council have had a long working association with Bord na Mona. Almost 25 years ago, representatives of the local community, the Council and Bord na Mona formed the Lough Boora Group. They completed a feasibility study that formed a blueprint for the subsequent development of the greater Lough Boora area, looking at the use of the site after the end of the peat harvesting.

”With their combined vision, Offaly County Council and Bord Na Mona worked collaboratively on securing funding for the delivery of the network of paved trails and in particular the spectacular ‘Sculpture in the Parklands’. To further complement the Discovery Park, Offaly County Council has over the past year been delivering a cycle track along the Grand Canal from Tullamore to Lough Boora.

”The Council planning team was particularly pleased to work with Bord na Mona in 2013 to find an optimal position and design for the excellent visitor centre and coffee shop. We look forward to continued collaboration.”

Marion Chalmers, Chair of RTPI Ireland said: “This is a visionary project that has secured sustainable natural rural regeneration of a former major industrial peat bog right in the centre of Ireland. Of particular importance is the praise and respect Bord Na Mona has for the planners that have worked with them since the inception of the project. Additionally impressive is the continued commitment of the Lough Boora Group to working together to further grow and invest in the asset of the Lough Boora Parklands as a resource and attraction of regional and national importance. It certainly merits achieving the Ireland’s Best Place Award and RTPI Ireland looks forward to watching the Parklands develop and evolve far into the future.”

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