Deborah Girvan, Alliance Councillor for Ards, who organised the meeting explained: “When I was elected to Ards Council in May 2011, I decided to introduce myself to the people who work in Comber, not just in trade and retail sector but also those who provide professional services or work in the public sector. It became clear that people who worked in Comber had major issues about the town but also had some great ideas on how to regenerate Comber. I invited as many Comber business people that I could physically visit prior to the meeting along with all of the elected political representatives for Ards West and Strangford. I was delighted that 29 people turned up which included traders, political representatives and other individuals who had a vested interest in the town.”
Alliance councillor Alan McDowell, who chaired the meeting, introduced Deborah Girvan who gave a slide presentation and concluded with ideas and initiatives which could boost the local economy.
Cllr Deborah Girvan said: “There are a number of key issues which concern the business people. “These include rundown buildings and vacant sites in Comber -especially Castle Street and Mill Street; traffic congestion in Castle Street; car parking; and rates. However, on a brighter note, new businesses had opened up in Comber, shop fronts had improved, and a café culture along with a thriving arts and crafts sector was beginning to attract more visitors to the town.
“Ards Council has invested £4,478,167 in Comber over the past four years including the refurbishment of Comber Leisure Centre, landscaping the Square, regeneration projects, waste recycling, community festivals and playgrounds. Planned capital projects for 2011/12 by the Council include £575,000 for a new Comber Waste Recycling Centre and £250,000 for Comber Cemetery, both of which will be located on a new site on the outskirts of Comber on the Ballygowan Road. Along with £500,000 for Comber in 2013/2014 which was recently announced by the Public Realm Scheme significant investments and improvements lie ahead for the future of our town.”
It was also noted that the Department of Education had granted £9,000,000 to build Nendrum College, which replaced Comber High School and three major housing developments had sprung up in recent years including the Mill Village, the Old Distillery and Ardnavalley on the Ballydrain Road.
Cllr Deborah Girvan went on to say that Comber had a number of tourist attractions which were growing in popularity including Island Hill, Castle Espie Wetland Trust, Comber Greenway, Strangford Lough and Scrabo Tower: “We have these wonderful local attractions on our doorstep. How do we get more people to stop off in Comber and spend money in our shops, pubs and restaurants?
She posed a number of questions to the assembled group: “How can we improve the derelict sites in Castle Street and Mill Street? How can we attract more businesses to open up in Comber and create employment? What can we do to get people who live in Comber to shop in Comber?”
She concluded by saying: “If we are to regenerate and build upon the success of Comber then Comber people who live and work here must work together to do so. I would suggest that a Comber Retailers Association/Commerce Group should be formed to lobby government, contribute to future plans, and access grants to improve the look of our town. I would also like to suggest that a Comber website should be set up where all businesses, local bodies and tourist attractions can be listed to promote the town and its attractions. With new capital investment coming our way, we need to start working together to ensure that we take this opportunity to leave a lasting legacy for the future generations of Comber.”
After much discussion and plenty of ideas coming forward in the meeting, it was unanimously agreed that David Birch, the Regeneration Officer for Ards Borough Council, would organise a public meeting in October for retailers and interested parties to form a fully constituted Comber Commerce group. This group would aim to represent the voice of the people who worked in Comber and influence future plans and strategies in the town.