A desire to see a thriving Irvinestown was the incentive behind Paula O’Neill and her husband John’s decision to create a children’s entertainment centre in the town.

A former nurse in the Erne hospital, Paula and her husband bought the building on Irvinestown’s Main Street during the boom. When the tenants left the building, the pair were left with a big decision.

“It was during the economic slump,” recalls Paula. “It was a landmark building. I remember going into Scollan’s when I was a girl, it was the first shop of its kind in Fermanagh. We didn’t think that Irvinestown needed a large derelict building on its Main Street, it wouldn’t have done us or the town any favours, so we decided that there was a need for a children’s entertainment centre.” The seed for Johnny Rocko’s had been sown.

Named by the couple’s daughter Mary-Alice, the bright, airy and clean building houses a bowling alley, a children’s soft play area, battery operated racing cars, a coffee shop, a diner and an arcade with kid’s rides.

“This is a totally self-funded project,” Paula points out. “At the time, there was no funding available. You just had to budget to get it up-and-running and then continue to budget to make improvements and changes to better the building and keep the customers interested as you go along.” The two years of construction were “a learning curve” for the couple, in terms of planning and building control. “A facility like this must be accessible for everyone therefore we had to ensure there were adequate provisions for disabled and visually impaired customers,” Paula explains.

Now celebrating its third anniversary, Johnny Rocko’s is a busy facility, Paula is pleased to report. Popular with schools, day care centres, church groups, youth clubs and annual holiday makers from nearby caravan parks, it employs 15-20 part time and seasonal staff.

“We have two party rooms and our parties are busy all year round. During the school term we would be busy at the weekends but during the summer and mid-term, we are very busy; we work around the school holidays.” Paula continues: “We are very blessed with the caravan folk. They’ve been coming back year-on-year and we’ve gotten to know some of them. Last year, a group of young people who had become friends over the summer organised a bus to take them here for their final evening; that was lovely.” Popular with both children and adults, particularly on a wet day, “they can come here and have a coffee or some food, potter around the town when the kids are playing; there’s something for everyone and the building is so big that they are not in each other’s faces”, Paula comments.

To date, “it has been hard work and it has been constant”, she remarks. “Feedback has been great, we are getting a good response. It’s early days but I’d like to think the business will grow.” In order to give something back to her customers, each year, on the anniversary of the business opening, Paula runs a competition on their facebook page: www.facebook.com/johnnyrockos This year, it is a chance to see Disney on Ice.

A member of Irvinestown Chamber of Commerce, Paula is keen to see the town become a thriving business centre once more.

“We appreciate people from Omagh, Castlederg and Drumquin getting in their cars and coming to Johnny Rocko’s. I like to see them leaving their kids for a few hours and spending money in other businesses around the town,” Paula remarks.

“Irvinestown did have quite a bit of industry a few years ago but there’s not as much now. The Chamber of Commerce is trying to organise events including guest speakers who might give us ideas on how to promote our businesses. Everyone is trying to keep businesses in Irvinestown but every business in the town would be struggling and rates is the biggest issue.” Paula continues: “Business rates are my biggest worry at the minute. Every week you look at your budget and you have to factor in the rates.

“But you try not to get disillusioned, you have to keep your chin up and move on.” On plans for a bowling alley in Omagh, Paula is not sure if the two close areas could justify two bowling alleys.

She points out that her facility does not serve alcohol, making it different from other bowling alleys in Northern Ireland and making it a popular choice among church groups.

Her advice to other potential entrepreneurs is: “It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. There’s no free time and you have to be at the forefront of your business.”