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my hometown

Waterford is - slowly, very slowly - pulling itself out of recession

Nicky Ryan took a trip back to the Déise to see how Ireland’s oldest city was faring ahead of the general election.


As part of our election coverage, we sent some of our journalists back to their hometowns to report on the issues concerning the people who live there.

Nicky Ryan, who used to live in Waterford, headed back to find out what’s gone wrong and right since the last election five years ago – and what people want to see happen after this election.

IT’S A COLD, drizzly morning in Waterford city. The streets and roads are relatively quiet for a Monday just after rush hour with just a a scattering of people walking through the town.

I’m sitting in the second floor offices of the Chamber of Commerce waiting for its CEO Nick Donnelly. The building once served as headquarters for the Port of Waterford Company when trade up and down the River Suir was the lifeblood of the city, as it had been for more than one thousand years.

Now the building is a pick ’n’ mix of different businesses, with a restaurant downstairs, offices upstairs, and a café leading off from the entrance hall, itself bizarrely filled with boxes and mannequins.

However, this stunning Georgian building losing its position of power isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s representative of how the Déise has changed over the years and is now undergoing the next phase of its history.

Nick is fairly confident that Waterford is now on the up, having taken a battering over the past five years since the last general election, speaking about concepts such as start-up gatherings, something that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago:

I think one of the positive outcomes of the recession has been the level of collaboration and partnership. Everyone came together saying: ‘We have to sort this out’.”

But while you hear of homegrown successes such as Winterval and the Viking Triangle, the city could use a helping hand.

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The city’s story of woe over the past eight years since the financial crash will sound familiar to you – it was lifted by the boom and dragged through the dirt by the bust.

In the good times, the city’s suburbs began to creep further out towards Dunmore East and Tramore, and the shopping districts spread further from the core shopping districts, down along the previously uninspiring Railway Square and across the river in Ferrybank.

Then everything came to an almighty, shuddering stop.

The job losses came in droves. IDA-backed companies such as GlaxoSmithKline and Teva lost hundreds of employees in a short period of time. The most significant blows in terms of sheer numbers came from TalkTalk, which moved operations out of the area taking 550 jobs with it, and the iconic Waterford Crystal, which at one stage in its history employed nearly one thousand people (it has since reopened in a much smaller and more focused operation right in the city centre).

Waterford had the worst rate of unemployment in the whole country in 2011. This slump was also apparent in neighbouring counties meaning Waterford experienced a deep recession.

I lived in Waterford for six years while in secondary school and moved away in 2010 just as Ireland was tumbling into a bailout – but not before witnessing the once-prosperous city being slowly dismantled. Shuttered shopfronts and emigration began to become the norm.

Heading back over the past five years to visit friends (at least, the ones who hadn’t moved away), it was clear that the city was in a bleak position. It was down and not getting back up again.

Now, something has changed.

Nick Donnelly has no shortage of positives from the past year to list out: The city’s port at Belview saw a 10% increase in cargo tonnage last year; VLM Airlines is now flying a new route in and out of Waterford Airport; the derelict quays are set to be redeveloped; and Bausch & Lomb announced a cash injection at its plant after its future was questioned following job losses.

Speaking about the latter, which saw 200 jobs go at the plant and a pay cut for those who remained, he said it was an example of how a pragmatic approach is being taken and that Waterford is serious about the recovery.

Nick’s job is, of course, to talk up the city – vitally important given the negative press received over the past few years – but he has a lot of evidence to back up the thesis that a fragile recovery is taking hold in Waterford.

Positivity is growing, but don’t think for a moment we’re out of the woods yet. We still have a lot of work to do.

Some of what Nick said seems to be right. I was repeatedly struck during my visit by how Waterford seems to be a more positive, nicer place to live and work with new and modern shops and services creeping in – but it’s a far cry from a decade ago.

And scratch at the surface of this and the human cost of the past few years becomes apparent. / YouTube

John Halligan succinctly sums up his view on the situation: “I don’t think the people of Waterford are happy.”

We spoke just days before the election was announced, and his office was already a hive of activity. The first-time TD is running again, this time under the banner of the Independent Alliance.

He was previously a radio operator at the city’s port, but has a long history of involvement in politics – he was elected to the council with the Workers’ Party of Ireland in 1999, but never managed to gain a Dáil seat before leaving the party and serving a year as Lord Mayor.

Although happy to speak about the sprinkling of job announcements and the falling unemployment rate – once the highest in the country – he says it’s not all coming up roses in the county:

Contrary to the government’s view, very many people are not feeling the effects of the upturn in the economy.

“An example of that during the week is the statistics I revealed on the local radio here that there are nearly 500 people now homeless in Waterford. That’s outrageous.”

(The Munster Express reports that these figures prompted a spat with Paudie Coffey, a Fine Gael TD in the constituency.)

John said he is often expected to say things like this as an opposition TD, but he is quick to praise the city, saying the locals have put a tremendous amount of effort into the recovery and that the city is well on its way to becoming more of a tourist hotspot.

He is also clearly angry at Waterford’s treatment by the coalition.

“We have 11% of the population but we don’t get 11% of the funding. I don’t like to be critical of the other TDs that are in government, I’m the only opposition TD and I don’t personally criticise them, they all have to fight their own battles, but I do think we have been let down badly, I really do.

“The prosperity of any city and any community is sustainable and well-paid jobs. If we don’t have sustainable and well-paid jobs, you don’t go anywhere. The economy flounders when people don’t investment in the economy because people don’t have spending power.”

And it’s all about putting spending power into people’s pockets. We’ve spent five years taking it out and not investing into our city which has had a disastrous and long-term effect on a very decent people, [who have] lost their homes, their dignity.
I think that if you speak to people on the street… I just feel we have been abandoned.

So that’s what I did. I headed down to the city centre area, including John Roberts Square (known locally as Red Square) which feels notably more lively than in previous years, and the City Square shopping centre to talk to Waterfordians about their city.

File_000 (1) Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

Brendan Hickey (left)

Brendan believes a few recent efforts to boost the recovery locally has started to bring a bit more life back in the city centre.

“It was a bit grim for a bit, alright,” he said, “A bit grey, a bit down, Things are starting to turn around from what I can see. The mood seems to be getting better.

Geraldine Keogh (middle)

Geraldine said one important issue for the people of Waterford going into this general election is what she described as the “pathetic and laughable” health system.

“You still have the age old problem of very ill people and the elderly waiting on trolleys.

She highlighted how the south east is one of the worst hit in terms of mental health issues, and said that the health system needs to treat patients with more respect.

Richie Ellis (right)

Richie didn’t hold back in describing the situation in the city centre, describing it as “dire”. Very few people are coming to Waterford to shop due to a lack of parking, he added.

He said the next government will need to focus on investment, securing one or two major factories to bring more jobs into the area.

File_000 Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

Jac Synott and Aoife Jacques (left)

“Waterford definitely feels better,” Aoife said, “Everyone is more upbeat and more positive, although I don’t know how much this has to do with the work of the government”.

Jac agreed with this, highlighting the number of new businesses and restaurants opening up and appear to be doing well. However, she criticised the media for its portrayal of Waterford as “downtrodden and down on its luck.

If people think it is, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Terry Wall (middle)

Terry described the situation in the city over the past five years as “fairly dismal”, highlighting the number of shops closing down only to be replaced by charity shops.

“There’s a lot of people doing nothing,” he said. “There’s no work here.”

He added that he felt Waterford may be negatively affected by the amalgamation of the city and county councils. Terry hopes for the next government will bring more employment – “but that’s almost utopian at this stage”.

Shane (right)
Shane was visiting Waterford from Cork, less than two hours away by car. He said that compared to his previous visit, the city seemed livelier, with more shops and more people.

He highlighted that it sometimes appears as if the country hasn’t quite learned its lessons from the past few years:

Everywhere has continued the trends from the Celtic Tiger. There’s still late bars now, when they weren’t commonplace before the Celtic Tiger. They’re in Waterford, I popped out of the hotel late last night to get a bite to eat and there was one still buzzing.

The weather is starting to clear a little in the city now. I head back up to speak to Brendan Halligan, whose offices are located at the western edge of the city – and just down the hall from his brother, John.

Brendan is at the frontline of the social problems John spoke about. He’s CEO of Children’s Grouplink, a charity that been assisting the local community for almost four  decades.

Like many other charities, its core departmental funding was cut significantly, which has caused it to rely more on donations.

“The government is just kicking the can down the road,” Brendan said.

“If we can’t intervene with children and teenagers they could end up dropping out of school or moving on to the criminal justice system.”

“We got a letter last year that our funding is not being cut. Whoopee!,” Brendan said sarcastically. “We’re meant to be happy? They’ve already cut it by 37%.”

What little recovery there has been so far in the city hasn’t reached the public’s pockets, he said.

“We’re working with families right across the social spectrum, we don’t just work with families who are from socially and economically disadvantaged areas.”

We’re hearing from everyone that they’re just not feeling it.

The charity saw a spike in the number of children accessing its services over the past few years, such as the breakfast club, as well as parents who struggled to meet childcare costs that Children’s Grouplink would attempt to match.

The numbers aren’t falling, and it doesn’t look like they will anytime soon.

We also take part in Foodcloud, where supermarkets provide food that’s still in date but is about to go off. Whenever we get a delivery it’s all taken home almost immediately by families.

Brendan suggested that part of the reason why Waterford has suffered in recent years is due to its position as something of a ‘forgotten’ city.

If you look at Dublin there was barely a recession there compared to the rest of the country. That’s understandable, Dublin being the capital, but take it out of it the equation and you still have Cork, Galway, even Limerick who are still miles ahead of Waterford in terms of investment.

“There’s something wrong that they’re not the same level. Waterford needs to look at how we attract more inward investment, and to invest more in social enterprise and entrepreneurs.”

This isn’t unique to Waterford. What county isn’t going to want a more focused approach from government to job creation? As Terry Wall said above, it’s an utopian hope.

However, it’s important to note two key projects which could see these jobs begin to appear – as Nick Donnelly told me, the government can’t exactly create jobs but they can help create the right conditions, and could see Waterford move firmly into the next stage of its existence.

The Viking Triangle

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Waterford is taking on Kilkenny. Only around 40 minutes up the road is a town renowned for its culture and already established as more of a tourist destination for anyone looking for that kind of holiday in the south east of Ireland.

While Waterford does have a vibrant arts scene, a recent project has kickstarted a cultural quarter close the the city centre.

This is the Viking Triangle. It traces the borders of the original Viking settlement – dating back to 914AD – with Reginald’s Tower sitting at its apex.

This extends down the quays in one direction, and down The Mall to the Bishop’s Palace museum in the other.

In this area lies what is described as a “critical mass” of historic sites.

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Sitting in the shadow of Reginald’s Tower is The Reg, a bar set up in Waterford at a time when the city was still very much on its knees.

Its owner Donal O’Brien was previously a manager with the Tweedy Group of bars. This was liquidated in 2010 after a spell in examinership, pulling the rug from Waterford nightlife.

This saw iconic bars and clubs such as Muldoons and Rubys close.

PastedImage-10056 Rubys, pictured here in 2009.

The Reg, like many other bars the length and breadth of the country, sees a craft offering as a key part of its trade, with a whiskey bar, nightclub, restaurant, and rooftop terrace thrown into the equation – not exactly features you would have expected to find in Waterford a few years ago.

“It’s the draft craft beers that people are really interested in, particularly the tourists, and especially the local beers like Metalman,” Donal explained.

Crucial to his decision to set up a new bar in the town was the Viking Triangle and the investment in the area, which already had the a good array of restaurants and bars like The Munster.

“We saw as it as being half-way to where it needed to be at the time,” he said.

The area is due to be included in a €10 million rejuvenation project of the city centre.

North Quays Project

Waterford needs a catalyst. It’s a city with good infrastructure and an educated workforce, but its everything hasn’t simple fallen into place – Brendan Halligan described it like “a great big jigsaw with everything all over the place”.

One new project could be a game-changer, and that’s the North Quay’s strategic development zone.

Creepy Waterford art An image by Gottfried Helnwein on the Odlums mill building, part of an art installation around the city in 2010 stephenhanafin stephenhanafin

This area lay abandoned for more than two decades, dominated by the landmark old flour mills overlooking a number of smaller buildings once used by the port.

The desolate area is, as the name suggests, on the north side of the Suir, located in the small enclave of the county that technically lies in Kilkenny.

Just last month local Fine Gael TD Paudie Coffey announced that the area will be designated a SDZ (although that said, it was also highlighted in National Development Plans as far back as 2007).

There are just handful of these SDZs in Ireland, and it involves a planning scheme being put in place “to facilitate development which is, in the opinion of the government, of economic or social importance to the State”.

PastedImage-54136 Google Maps Google Maps

Nick Donnelly has a particular vision in mind for this area:

Companies that want to invest in Ireland really look to Dublin, or think that Dublin is the place they really need to go. They really now have to start looking somewhere else.
The availability [of suitable office space] is one thing but the cost of living as well. If you’re somebody who wants to take a job in Dublin, the salary is okay but the cost of living is massive and the quality of life is different.
The opportunity that this opens up is very unique, if you see a significant office development scheme combined with the city and road infrastructure already in place that you don’t necessarily get anywhere else.

Of course, a pinch of salt is needed when considering the potential impact of the SDZ. It was announced in the run-up to an election, and is a project of massive scale that could take years.

The final part of my visit focused on the now. I went to the The Book Centre, the centrepiece of Red Square and a common meeting point, to get a snapshot of how things here can act as a litmus test for the rest of the city.

Sitting in the centre’s busy cafe, manager Lorraine O’Brien explained that an element of positivity is creeping into their day-to-day trade, with other businesses in Red Square now able to keep their heads above water as people are starting to cautiously spend more money.

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“We found that last Christmas there was a lot more people around, and they were spending more,” she recalled. “We found that especially with Winterval [a Christmas festival held in the city] the footfall was a lot higher.”

“Previously there were new businesses opening up but they weren’t lasting. Now there are still empty units, but you can see it’s much busier around.”

“People aren’t as afraid to spend money, when they were previously because they didn’t know what was coming next.”

The fragile recovery does seem to be taking hold. In Waterford City and County there were 8,911 and 10,585 people on the live register in January. This is compared to 11,793 and 14,143 in January 2011.

As many of those I spoke to said, this recovery cannot be taken for granted. It is fragile, and Waterford has a long way to go if it wants to secure its future without relying on industry as it did previously.

Lorraine gave a simple example of how things have changed:

In depths of the recession you’d fly into work in the morning across the bridge. Now, you actually have to put up with traffic again.

Originally published at 7pm, 23 February

Read: Has the recovery made it to Sligo? I went home to find out >

‘The forgotten county’: I went home to find out if Donegal really does have it worse >

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