On paper, the town has it all

 

UPTOWN/DOWNTOWN: A PORTRAIT OF DROGHEDADrogheda has lost its industries and its retail sector is ailing, but with its sights set on city status and plans for future investment, resolute locals are determined to turn the town around

INSIDE DROGHEDA’Scrowded grey-tiled welfare office, a couple of young men are looking at a colourful poster on the notice board. “Work abroad!” it exclaims, alongside a picture of a jaunty young construction worker with a hard hat and clipboard. His speech bubble says: “You can easily earn €80k a year in Australia and the cost of living is much lower than home.” It’s a sentiment on the minds of increasing numbers of young men here.

Far from being an equal-opportunities destroyer, the downturn has hit young people hardest. This was a generation that was told it had more money, opportunities and choices than ever before. These days, the choices sometimes seem to boil down to whether it’s better to stay on the dole or take your chances abroad.

“Most people I know are just fecking off to Australia or Canada,” says Graham Finnegan (24), one of the 8,361 people signing on the Live Register in the town, a 122 per cent increase in the space of two years.

“I opened a cafe last year, but that’s closed. Before that, I lost my job as a plumber . . . What will I do now? I’m thinking of heading abroad too, but I’ll take it as it comes. We’ll see what happens.”

Outside the welfare office, Neil (26) is filling in some forms. It’s his first visit to the welfare office. Orders for his delivery company have dried up and he can’t afford to make ends meet anymore.

“I feel hard done by – it’s not for the lack of working or lack of trying,” he says. “I don’t want to do this. I’ve an 18-month-old daughter. I blame the bankers, the Government . . . There are plenty of others, as you can see by the queue here. Everyone’s leaving, as far as I can see it. The villages around here? It’ll be like the west, years ago. They’ll be deserted.”

Christopher (20) is dressed in a tracksuit and leaning against a car waiting for his friend, who’s also signing on. Christopher has never worked – he’s been on welfare since he left school.

“I left school just when the recession hit. There was no work,” he says. “I’d love to have a job, but there’s nothing. My friends aren’t working either. So, yeah, it’s all I’ve known.”

As we speak, Jim, a man in his 50s, approaches us. “Do you want to know what’s gone wrong here? Just look at that,’ he says, pointing towards a newly-built shopping centre and the empty quayside further down.

“There was a foundry over there, and a brewery. We had boot factories, we were famous for them. Now, what do we produce? Nothing. All we’re left with is too many shopping centres. This [the welfare offices] is one of the busiest places around.”

DROGHEDA, WITH Apopulation of more than 35,000, is the largest town in Ireland. On paper, it has everything going for it. It’s part of the Dublin-Belfast “economic corridor”, but far enough away from both cities to enjoy much cheaper property; it has easy access to Dublin airport and has its own port; it’s on the doorstep of major infrastructure such as the M1 motorway and Dublin-Belfast train line; it has a large, well-educated population that commutes out of the town each day.

Yet, for the past few decades the town has suffered a decrease in industry and investment. In recent years the sprawling 30-acre Coca Cola processing plant has been levelled, with the loss of around 200 jobs (though it has retained its administrative arm, Beverage Business Solutions).

Weeds now sprout out of the plant that once housed Thorsman Ireland. It relocated to Latvia a few years ago. Other substantial employers such as Irish Flavours and Fragrances, Millex and Tellabs have either closed or significantly reduced their workforce.

Determined to reverse the economic tide, the town’s authorities counted on major population increases and economic growth in the wider region. New shopping centres were built and pristine industrial estates were created to accommodate new businesses.

Then the downturn hit.

To see its combined effects, take a walk down West Street, the town’s main shopping thoroughfare. Known as the “golden quarter mile”, it is now littered with “to let” or “for sale” signs. Tesco and Dunnes run busy operations, as do some cafes. But the further you go up the street, the emptier and more desolate it gets. In all, about a third of premises are empty.

“This was a proud retail street,” says Eugene Kierans, whose family butcher shop has been here for decades. “But West Street is dying slowly. This isn’t a case of shouting wolf. We’ve seen this happen in the UK where the old retailers have been squeezed out.”

Kierans says there are a a number of factors behind the demise: too many new shopping centres on the outskirts of town, high commercial rates, the toll on the M1 which penalises people coming into the town, the lack of parking. He says it all boils down to making it increasingly difficult for people to come in and out of town to shop.

“A woman who comes into town to get her hair or nails done – she’s to find parking, get through the traffic, maybe pay the €1.80 toll twice if she’s using the motorway. Then, if you’re late with the parking, it’s a €60 fine,” says Kierans.

Francis and John Hurley, both in their 50s, have run their grocery shops and delicatessen, Hurley Brothers, on West Street since the 1980s.

“We’re not in any great trouble because we’re an established business with loyal customers,” says Francis. “But I’ve never seen a recession like this. We opened during the recession in the 1980s and there was just one vacant shop. Now, look at the street. Small shops can’t afford the rates. We pay nearly €4,000 a year, not including the water or bin charges.”

But the town’s council needs all the income it can lay its hands on through car parking or rates because funding from central government is on the decline.

Across town, the streets closer to the two new shopping centres – the Laurence Town Centre and Scotch Hall – are far busier. Much of this is down to the heavier footfall in the area, but retailers also say they are responding to the downturn in new and imaginative ways.

Trader’s Coffee House on Laurence Street is the kind of booming, funky cafe that wouldn’t be out of place in San Franciso or Seattle. In a sign of changing times, it even has an iPhone loyalty card app.

Across the road, Kirwan’s Fish Cart, a family-owned fishmongers, is doing a steady trade. “People have less money, sure,” says owner Patrick Kirwan, “but if you give value for money and keep developing new products, like fishcakes or stir-frys, they’ll keeping coming back.”

Louth Craftmark, based at the Highlanes Gallery, is another business responding to the retail slump. It has an impressive range of high-quality jewellery, ceramics, silks, leatherwork, wood products, wall hangings and glassware.

This co-operative venture represents around 60 artists, craftmakers and designers who want a better way to market and sell their goods. While the recession has hit sales, craftmakers have responded by making smaller and more affordable products.

“We’ve found that people tend to support local products or buy ones which will last,” says Sarah Daly, Louth Craftmark’s director. “We’ve also been reacting by encouraging producers to make smaller, lower-priced products. We’re doing everything we can to row together, with promotions, in-store demonstrations, anything to get people in. And it’s working.”

THE TOWN HAS ITSproblems, clearly, but there is huge potential and no shortage of plans for how to breathe new life into the area.

In 2009, economic consultants Indecon produced a report for Louth County Council on the future of the county. It estimated up to 15,000 jobs could be created by 2015 by making the area more business-friendly, setting up a new marketing drive and targeting industries such as financial services. So far, though, there’s been little sign of economic growth.

“Things didn’t pan out the way we hoped,” says Dr Pat McCloughan, one of the report’s authors and now managing director of PMCA economic consulting. “But it did lead to the establishment of the Louth Economic Forum – headed by former IDA chief executive Padraic White – which is implementing its proposals.” McCloughan says the presence of global fund managers State Street in Drogheda is a sign of the sort of investment the town can attract in the future.

“This is a real sleeping giant of a town,” he says. “It has tremendous advantages in terms of the size of population, access to infrastructure and a highly skilled commuter population, which would prefer to work closer to the town, given the choice.”

A campaign to give Drogheda city status has also gathering pace. The town currently falls between three local authorities, Louth County Council, Drogheda Borough Council and Meath County Council. A single city council, campaigners argue, would allow for a city manager to be appointed and would see increased support from development authorities.

“It’s outrageous that a town this size can’t make its own decisions,” says Peter Monaghan of the Drogheda City Status campaign. “The town’s now surrounded by five shopping centres. The new IDA business park for the area is actually in Meath, so it doesn’t qualify for the BMW [Border, Midland and West] grants. And we don’t even figure in the National Spatial Strategy. It’s madness. We need to be in control of our own destiny.”

Many also say the town’s decline has much to do with a lack of a presence in the Dáil. Typically, the Louth constituency has returned just a single TD from the town and has rarely had a minister.

In the most recent election, two Government TDs were elected – Fine Gael’s Fergus O’Dowd and Labour’s Ger Nash – raising hopes that Drogheda will now have a stronger voice.

“I think we’ve been isolated and neglected for too long,” says Nash, a first-time deputy. “There’s been a lot of hope invested in us. [Voters have] seen how other areas have benefited. It’s up to us to use our political influence well, to make development agencies more accountable and to ensure this area is marketed better.”

There are more immediate problems though, such as the pockets of long-term unemployment and the danger that jobless young people in the area could form part of a “lost generation” without work. These concerns weigh heavily on the minds of staff at the bustling offices of the Drogheda Resource Centre for the Unemployed.

Every day, Jackie Taffe and a team of assistants deal with people adjusting to the harsh reality of unemployment and lowered expectations.

“The majority of people here want to work, and they feel degraded and humiliated to be looking for help,” Taffe says. “We urgently need more places for up-skilling and retraining so people are ready to work when the economy improves. The jobs strategy that’s been promised is key. We can’t keep going the way we’re going.”

One sign of hope is the long-promised enterprise campus in Drogheda, which would help support start-up businesses and entrepreneurs. Local representatives say work is due to begin on the building soon. There’s also talk of a new third-level initiative in the town involving Dundalk Institute of Technology and Dublin City University aimed at promoting job creation and economic development.

For all the talk of negativity and gloom, people such as Des Grant, joint managing director of the Drogheda Leadernewspaper, says the town is faring far better than most.

“There’s a buzz about this place,” says Grant. “We believe we’ve the best town in Ireland and are very optimistic and positive about the future. Lots of our advertisers have retail outlets or offices in the surrounding towns – and they’ll tell you their Drogheda outlets are faring the best.”

Eugene Kierans says the key ingredients for the regeneration of the town are already there. “We are a resilient people and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says Eugene. “Take tourism: we have it all here. The Boyne Valley, the gateway to Newgrange. We just need to market it better. As for the town, it’s simple. We need to make it attract people in and not charge them at every turn. That’s how we’ll begin to recover.”

A growing concern

Job vacancies can be hard to come by, but Drogheda-based web design company MOR Solutions is happy to say it’s looking for staff.

The firm is hiring experienced web developers to join its workforce of nine, which designs websites and creates applications for businesses trying to tap into the potential of the web.

“When I was building my home back in 2000, I realised I couldn’t source simple things like doors or kitchens on the web,” says Louisa Maher, the firm’s founder. “I happened to be in the IT sector, so decided to give it a go, and it all took off from there.”

MOR’s clients include Flogas, Height for Hire and Tourism Ireland. Success didn’t come easily, though. Many businesses still thought the internet was a fad and didn’t see the value in it during the early days. That’s all changed now.

While the downturn has slowed business, and getting paid on time by some clients is an issue, Maher says there is plenty of business still out there.

“This is a great place to be based,” she says of Drogheda. “And this is a fascinating industry. Every day there is something new that can help customers improve business or drive sales online.”

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