A local church’s plan for a major out-of-town development at Ballee will have “little impact” on a town centre which has “very little life left in it”.
That’s the view which has been expressed to this newspaper by William Wright, founder of global bus manufacturing company Wrightbus, whose son, Jeff, is lead Pastor of Green Pastures church which is spearheading the proposed ‘Gateway Project’.
At a media update at Green Pastures back in November, it was stated that the project, if approved by planners, would not only create 1,000 jobs but would make way for new global headquarters for the Wright Group.
The famous bus building firm is a partner in the scheme and is match funding the £5m being raised by the Church for the ‘Gateway Project’ which plans to develop a 97-acre site at Ballee providing training, social housing, a church, a motor village, food retail, a 60-bed hotel, nursing home and more.
Earlier this month, planners had been set to refuse one of the scheme’s three planning applications - involving a food superstore, drive-through restaurant and various other commercial outlets. They had also been set to grant permission for the church, crèche and gym section of the scheme and also for an application which includes the creation of a business park, hotel, motor village, training academy and nursing home.
However, when the plans came before Ballymena Council’s planning committee, decisions in all three proposals were deferred after councillors requested a number of office meetings to discuss the plans.
Before that meeting, Ballymena Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association had urged councillors to ‘stand up for their town centre’ and support the Planning Service recommendation to refuse permission for “the hypermarket” which they described as “a major threat to the viability of Ballymena Town Centre”.
William Wright, who contacted The Times on Thursday, pointed out that he is not a member of Green Pastures Church and that he no longer owns shares in Wright Group, but felt the need to speak out on the issue because he has “a real interest in Ballymena”.
“Firstly, I want to point out that the Wright Group contributes a great deal to the local economy. It has a turnover of £180m a year much of which is spent on wages and salaries in the Ballymena area - the Chamber (of Commerce) should take that into account,” William Wright said.
“Secondly, Ballymena town centre is in dire straits and, the fact is, whether this Gateway Project is passed or let go will have little impact on the town centre,” claimed Mr Wright, who said he had tallied up 18 empty premises on Church Street alone in a recent “rough count” of vacant properties.
“The Chamber should also take into account. The life is slowly ebbing out of the town centre and people are voting with their feet...They need to waken up to the fact that whether this (project) is passed or not will make no difference to Ballymena town centre and the condition it is in. There is very little life left in it,” said Mr Wright, adding he “would go to any meeting with the Chamber on this”.
Mr Wright said he believed that pedestrianisation of Church Street, Wellington Street and Mill Street and introduction of free car parking could, however, make a difference to town centre foot fall and stated that the local commerce and industry body “should be keeping their mind open”.
The Times contacted Ballymena Chamber of Commerce for a response but at the time of going to press no comment had been received.