A new health and well-being centre set to open next month in Galliagh will transform a once anti-social hotspot into the heart of the local community.
The football pitches and green area which surround the state-of-the-art facility at Leafair Gardens have all too often in the past been strewn with burnt out vehicles at the hands of joyriders.
However, thanks to the hard work of community representatives the lands have been protected and enhanced to benefit people living in the densely populated area.
Leafair Community Association was established in 1994 after a group of residents came together while kitchens were undergoing refurbishment in the area.
Residents were uprooted from their homes due to the “very, very poor” standard of work carried out by contractors at the time.
The issue was resolved and this group eventually became known as the Leafair Community Association. An action plan was subsequently drawn up to tackle pressing issues in the area.
It started with a play area where Leafair Gardens now stands which was removed to make way for housing. Residents were told the park would be replaced but it never materialised.
A campaign began to have it rebuilt through the local council and it was eventually relocated next to Leafair pitches.
In recent years an astro turf football pitch has been laid beside the historic grass surface, funded through the department for communities and local council. An outdoor gym and running track are also new additions.
Peter McDonald, community co-ordinator at Leafair Community Association, commented on the transformative changes taking place: “At one time that area was a dumping ground for burnt out cars, anti-social behaviour and all that kind of nonsense that went on for years.
“This estate had a very bad name because of all that carry on and it was badly run down so we had a hell of a lot of work ahead of us. Working alongside the Council we set about acquiring a new 3G pitch which would be fenced in and lit up.”
That pursuit proved successful and a new pitch opened in 2011. It is not only a great asset to the local community but attracts people from across the city - last year alone 44,000 people made use of the facility.
It acts as a social enterprise and the opening of a new exercise and well-being centre will maximise this business model by accommodating a range of health professionals who will cater for the needs of the neighbourhood.
It is a non-profit organisation and any money made through the football pitches is used to pay workers or re-directed back into the community through investment.
In the meantime, Skeoge House, which started out as one small office with a single lightbulb inside a couple of old garages has been upgraded to become the central hub for Leafair Community Association.
Money was secured during the City of Culture year allowing for an extension to be added.
“We started a lot of work around adult education classes through North West Regional College at night. We did a lot of work around addiction services for people,” Mr McDonald explained.
“We’re part of an overall Outer North Neighbourhood Partnership which is based at Northside, you have the Greater Shantallow Area Partnership which is the operational arm of the Outer North and they’re two very key organisations that would oversee the entire area.
“We try not to duplicate what each other are doing and have been very successful in that. Previously there was a disconnect but once it was all brought together on a community partnership level we quickly established who was doing what, where and when.
“No longer is this organisation, or could it be, just about Leafair Gardens because the total number of dwellings in this area is about 115 and for funding purposes and community needs you cannot deal with just 115 houses and think that nobody else counts. That is not community development.”
Between 17,000 – 19,000 homes are now served across the Greater Shantallow Area.
The impressive new three-storey sport and recreational centre currently under construction is on course to be completed by mid-July. Funded through the social investment fund, it cost in the region of £1.2m to build.
The first floor will be changing facilities for clubs using the pitches, the second floor will consist of community and recreational space and the third will contain sports rooms and office facilities.
Once the building is finished a management agreement will be put in place between the community association and council.
Mr McDonald explained: “We will run it. We’ll employ the staff and run it on a daily basis. It’s another social enterprise.
“We want to get away from calling it a sports pavilion, it will be a health and well-being centre. That’s emotional health, mental health and physical health. We’re trying to create services in the area that don’t exist at present.
“Where services are missing around mental health issues, maybe around counselling on bereavement, dealing with obesity and diabetes, we could have a physiotherapist and a dentist, all of that and more will be based there.
“You can also look after your physical health by playing a game of football, walking around the track, using the outdoor gym.”
He continued: “The building is impressive looking, it’s modern, it’s new and it’s needed. This isn’t about me or other individuals, it’s about principles and about dealing with the people out there who have nothing.
“People always say, ‘was that your vision?’, my vision is about people and when you develop the needs of a community then you have little bother with the community. And that’s what the fight’s always about, a lack of facilities.”
Mr McDonald went on to say that Galliagh and Shantallow have been playing catch-up with other areas of the town. At long last it now seems to be making progress and the imminent construction of two community centres look set to alter the landscape, and hopefully the prospects of people, in what has been perennially neglected area.
“This time next year we’ll be well-equipped in this area, we’ll have two new centres and a health suite. Anti-social behaviour is at a low ebb at this point and time, I don’t want to say too much but going back to the days when Moss Park was a nightmare with bonfires, it no longer exists. We run great community festivals in the summer and we’re in the planning stages for all of this.
“Graffiti has all been removed, it’s like new living in it, it’s not without its problems, I’m not a fool, problems will always be exist.
“Our next task as a community is to tackle that new development out at Skeoge Road because I’m afraid it’s building, and building, and building houses, and there is no community infrastructure. So in another four or five years time we will end up with another Galliagh or Creggan out there.
“Our argument is that infrastructure should go hand-in-hand with development.
“We need a school out there, we need a community hall out there, we need football pitches, we need zebra crossings. We know what we need, so we’ll not wait another thirty years like we had to before,” Mr McDonald concluded.
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