THE former Model School in Athy – which suffered extensive fire damage in 2010 – will get a new lease on life as an innovation hub for the food and drink sector, following a formal launch by Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys.
An initiative led by Kildare Co Council with support from Coca-Cola – which is providing a €500,000 investment to support the launch phase of the project – the Athy Food, Drink and Skills Innovation Hub will aim to build sustainable opportunities in the food industry in Athy and surrounding areas. The hub is scheduled for completion in 2020 and has been described as having the potential to be a “transformational catalyst” for community regeneration in the area.
Speaking at the launch on Thursday 18 April at the Clanard Court Hotel, Athy Municipal District Cathoirleach Aoife Breslin explained that the project will see the historic building revitalised and noted the growth of the food and drink sector in Ireland.
“This project is an exciting opportunity to reimagine the Model School in Athy as a place for education and learning. The Athy Food, Drink and Skills Innovation Hub will provide a dedicated space for enterprise, job creation and training for the benefit of people in Kildare,” she said. “The collaboration between Kildare Co Council, Maynooth University, KWETB, Carlow IT and Coca-Cola will ensure that entrepreneurs, small businesses, culinary students and the community can access the facilities and resources that will allow the hub to achieve its full potential in one of the most dynamic sectors.”
The initiative will help empower local food-based entrepreneurs through space, training and tools. A skills hub will feature a learning and demonstration kitchen and will offer educational opportunities through accredited career training programmes, while a shared-use commercial kitchen will be available for culinary entrepreneurs to develop and expand their businesses.
The innovation hub will also include a community food discover centre, where chefs and nutritionists will work to educate food companies, retailers and restaurateurs about the science of nutrition, while a co-working/collaboration zone will feature hot desks, private meeting rooms, a food learners’ lounge and study space.
“Clustering learners and entrepreneurs in a central multi-tenant food incubator and training environment has proven to be a dynamic business development process,” remarked Peter Carey, Chief Executive of Kildare Co Council, adding that the development of the hub will allow for “step changing” impact. “The visible impacts of the hub will allow for the facilitation of job creation, the upskilling of youth and long-term unemployed learners with accredited qualifications and the support of new and emerging businesses in Athy.”
The significant investment by Coca-Cola, which comes in advance of the transfer of its concentrate manufacturing to Ballina, has been praised across the board, including by Minister Humphreys who also described the project as an important element in the implementation of the Mid-East Regional Enterprise Plan (launched earlier this year) and noted that it was an exciting day for both Athy and Kildare.
The innovation hub will benefit from partnership and outreach arrangements – a strategic objective in that plan – including with the Boyne Valley Food Hub project in Navan.
“Through the new hub,” Minister Humphreys noted, “budding entrepreneurs in the food and drink sector will have the space where they can access expertise and training, become more innovative, and grow their business, creating new job opportunities in the Mid-East region.”
Those comments were echoed by Cllr Seán Power, Mayor of Kildare, who referred to the innovation hub as an important development for both Athy and Kildare, and one that displays the Council’s strong commitment in terms of promoting enterprise in the county.
“Today is a great day for Athy,” he said.