GRAEME COUSINS visits a thriving Ballymena on the 100th anniversary of the formation of the town’s Chamber of Commerce
Being located in the middle of Ulster has not done Ballymena any harm in terms of commercial activity.
While businesses have come and gone over the years – most notably the town’s linen mills and Gallaher tobacco company – Ballymena has remained an important hub for businesses and retailers.
Part of the credit must go to the town’s Chamber of Commerce which formed in 1919.
A former president and a fanatical collector of all things relating to the trade organisation is Audrey Wales, who was awarded an MBE in 2006 for services to business.
Audrey, who has been a councillor on Mid and East Antrim Council since 2011, and her husband Chris ran the Newsrack newsagents in Ballymena for around 20 years.
She said: “I have boxes upon boxes of stuff relating to the chamber. It’s just been handed down and around.
“I was involved in the chamber since 1995 and I was chamber president three times.
“I’ve always kept a lot of stuff. The most important item which I’ll be happy to not be in charge of any more is a copy of the first minutes of the chamber from 1919.
“I’ll be giving it over to someone else to look after once we’re done with the 100-year anniversary.”
Ballymena Chamber of Commerce was formed on September 25, 1919 as the town began to get back on its feet after World War One.
Its aim was to “uphold, protect and promote the general interests of manufacturers, merchants, traders, farmers, fruit growers, scotch mill owners, horse and cattle dealers of Ballymena and the surrounding district”.
The chamber’s first affairs were controlled by president James David Caruth, supported by a vice president and a council of 20 members. The membership fee was £1.
Audrey said: “Ballymena was a really growing town in 1919. When you look at the minutes of the original meeting you’ll see the different professions. Caruth was a solicitor, Robert Crawford was a draper, you had a china merchant, a flower mill owner, a coal merchant, a spinning mill owner, a woolen mill owner, a linen merchant.”
The town has always had strong links with the farming community and has been the obvious market centre for the area.
Audrey continued: “When the mills closed they were replaced with other manufacturing businesses – Flexibox who made lapping machines, GB Britton’s who made shoes – these companies chose to locate in Ballymena.
“Although Ballymena is inland and doesn’t have a port – it is located right in the middle. Ballymena means middle town. It’s right between both ports and is close to the airport as well.”
While Ballymena has been able to attract business it has also had its fair share of high profile closures.
Audrey said: “In recent times Ballymena has been really hard hit since we lost Patton’s, Michelin, JTI Gallaher (tobacco company).
“Those companies really supported not only Ballymena but they had staff from all over Northern Ireland. Their closures had far reaching consequences.
“Nobody thought those businesses would go, but if you look down through history you’ll see the gasworks has gone, the mills have gone.
“New businesses have replaced them.
“Ballymena is a good example of how to keep re-inventing yourself.
“In saying that we’ve also been quite lucky to have third and fourth generations still owning the same business – McKillens (shoe shop), Wallaces (department store) and McKinney’s (estate agents) are still thriving.”
She continued: “We now have retail parks. We’re very fortunate in Ballymena that the two retail parks are in the town – Fairhill and Tower Centre – that’s a big bonus.
“You can walk quite easily from one to the other via the town centre.
“When I was growing up the retail hive would have been around Bridge Street, Church Street, Wellington Street, Ballymoney Street, Broughshane Street.
“It’s all moved to the area around the two shopping centres and in between.
“The retail footfall has moved to the other end of the town.”
Audrey added: “I would say Ballymena Chamber is one of the busiest and vibrant ones outside of Belfast.
“In Ballymena town itself we have the lowest vacancy rates for units and our footfall was up 6.9%. It is an excellent retail town.
“Unfortunately you’ve still got people who see things in a shop and then try to get them cheaper online but you’ve got an awful lot of people who just love to go in and shop.”
With 120 members Ballymena Chamber of Commerce is as strong as it has been in its 100 years history.
Tom Wiggins is Ballymena Chamber of Commerce’s only employee, working two days a week as business development manager.
He has been working with the trade organisation for two years, managing membership and organising eight or nine showpieces a year such as business breakfasts.
The 60-year-old also works closely with Mid and East Antrim Council and Ballymena Business Improvement District on commercial ventures.
“I’m a bit of a blow-in to Ballymena,” he admitted.
“I came here after I retired and started coaching at Ballymena Rugby Club as a community development officer. I was chairman of the club, and am now honorary secretary.
“I’ve got to know a lot of the local business through the club.”
He said: “We’re a very vibrant chamber. In the past two years our membership has grown from 90 to 120.
“Fees range from £95 a year for companies employing one to five people, the dearest for the biggest companies is £300 a year. It’s not dear to be a member.”
He continued: “Not being from a business background I’m incredibly impressed with the people we have, the people who are willing to take a risk. They see an opportunity and they take it. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit.
“Everyone’s younger than me, and that’s one of the joys I have, seeing these young people starting out in business and really having a go at it.
“We’ve a lot of new businesses in Ballymena, but also a lot of bigger businesses who fly slightly under the radar and are doing really well.
“We’ve had a couple of knocks as you know in Ballymena, but people just roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.
“The town centre remains a great place to shop – it still has its multiples, its independents.”
Should you be in the mood for a trip to the City of Seven Towers it is worth noting that you can avail of a car parking space for five hours for just a pound.
Ballymena is home to the biggest business awards outside Belfast, with the ceremony organised by the chamber now in its 17th year.
Tom said: “We have 21 awards. Last year we had 450 people at the gala evening in the Tullyglass Hotel.”
Meanwhile a proposed digital innovation hub at St Patrick’s Barracks site could prove to be another boost for Ballymena.
Ambitious plans to create a multimillion pound next generation science park at the site of the former barracks are designed to arm local people with the skills to compete on a global stage as digital innovators and entrepreneurs.
As well as the business hub, the site has also been subject to proposals for new housing and a new leisure centre.
Tom commented: “It’s going to have a link to the town centre, it will attract people to Ballymena and hopefully bring them into the town centre and use local businesses and shops. It’s a very exciting development.
“The Michelin site continues to be developed as well. There’s businesses moving in there all the time.”
DUP councillor Audrey Wales added: “We’re hoping the council will be involved in St Patrick’s Barracks and everything that is going to happen up there. The Chamber is 100% behind them.
“There are plans for housing, advanced manufacturing, and our new leisure centre. The good thing about it is it’s a five minute walk from the town centre.”
Reflecting on her time with the Chamber of Commerce, she said: “We were involved in the initial investigation into CCTV for Ballymena. We launched shopmobility. In 1998 there was a problem with antisocial behaviour so we set up Ballymena Retailers Against Crime which is still going.
“The Chamber also had a tourism conference and brought folk from all over Ireland. We won the Island of Ireland Tourism award in 1996.
“We had Mary McAleese up for a business lunch, we had our first ministers here, we hosted sister cities conference, had visitors from Lithuania, we got ourselves involved in absolutely everything.
“It’s quite interesting if you go through the history there used to be the chamber and the council doing their own thing, that’s all changed. There’s now a greater working relationship with the two.”