Northern Ireland

Newry's bid to take centre stage

One of the Newry, Mourne and Down District Council bilingual signs
Image caption There are big plans for the city of Newry

Almost 20 years after securing city status, the frontier town is looking to take centre stage.

Newry has big plans and the powers that be do not intend to wait to implement them.

According to incoming Newry, Mourne and Down Council chief executive Marie Ward, the site for a new theatre and conference space has been announced and a new civic hub will be built.

"They will both be breaking ground in 2020," she told BBC News NI.

Image caption There are plans for a new theatre and conference space and civic hub

"The council has a budget of £20m and that was secured ourselves within our own capital plans," she adds.

"We've also secured £8m from the Belfast Region City Deal for the enhancement of the Grade A office space and the public realm."

The theatre plan will see the demolition and rebuilding of the existing Sean Hollywood Arts Centre - linking it to the town hall and utilising an area of wasteland that sits behind the two.

The civic hub will see more than 200 council staff relocated into the city centre in a facility built upon what is now the cathedral car park.

There are also plans for a multi-storey car park to be developed nearby on the former site of North Street flats.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Just across the road from the proposed civic centre, the team behind a £40m health hub project said that after years of delays, they would finally be able to go on site later this month.

Image caption There are plans to demolish and rebuild an existing arts centre

In a statement, the Department of Health said: "The preferred bidder advises it expects full planning approval to be issued in September 2019."

This would see the overgrown former playing fields of the old Abbey school - where Pat Jennings and a host of Down and Armagh GAA stars learned their trades - transformed.

The delivery of the projects would be the single, biggest transformation of the County Down side of the city since the 1960s, when large areas of housing were demolished to build a dual carriageway.

But the biggest investment of all will be the delivery of the Southern Relief Road.

Image caption Peter Maxwell of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) claims the project threatens access to the city centre for tall ships

Costing about £120m and linking the Belfast-Dublin and Warrenpoint-Newry dual carriageways, it is one of the biggest and most challenging road building projects in Northern Ireland.

It promises to remove thousands of car and lorry movements from the city centre every day, whilst improving access to the nearby Warrenpoint port.

The bulk of the funding is scheduled to come from the Belfast Region City Deal.

'Loss of heritage'

However, not everyone is happy.

Peter Maxwell of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland (IWAI) said the project threatened access to the city centre for tall ships.

Image caption What do these plans mean for tall ships?

"It poses a major problem. The design is less than 12 metres (40ft) high with no opening span on the design.

"It is very important that the bridge opens to allow tall ships through.

"At the moment we have one tall ship in the Albert Basin - the Valharding.

"Next week, another is coming and it will be permanently based there. It is such a loss of heritage to think that decent sized boats wouldn't be able to get up the canal in future."

Others are also uneasy. Last year, the council backed community plans to transform the 15-acre former docklands site at the Albert Basin into a city park.

Business or pleasure?

Image caption Brian Cleland says change needs to happen

Since then, the group behind the proposal say there has been little movement.

Brian Cleland of the Newry 2020 group said the park was "technically part of the regeneration plan".

"It is the only part of the plan that hasn't received capital funding and doesn't have a project team in place. That needs to change," he said.

With finances, finite choices will have to be made - particularly between business and pleasure.

More on this story