The unsunny southeast

Bausch & Lomb is cutting jobs and wages in Waterford, a city already hit hard by unemployment, where ‘survival is the new success’

Sat, Jun 7, 2014, 01:00

At times the M9 might be your own private road. Take the left turn off the thrumming M7 at the sign for Waterford and Kilkenny and the contrast is almost charming: a fine, relaxed motorway that grows ever calmer and more scenic as the road unfolds to the southeast.

“Sure it’s not the road to anywhere. Except Waterford. That’s why no one’s on it,” says Anne, a woman waiting outside Debenhams for her mother to emerge. The last straw for the mother was when the venerable Kelly’s, the clothes shop on the Quay, closed last year. “Now she’ll probably have to go to Kilkenny for the frock” for the granddaughter’s wedding.

Cynics call the motorway the outstanding legacy of the bubble – it provides a speedy exit from Waterford, boom boom. But it holds a grain of truth. A city-centre businessman says his emigrant daughter comes home and without a second thought hops into the car to go shopping in Kilkenny or Kildare Village – “an hour from here” – or even Dundrum, in south Dublin.

Benetton, Warehouse, Pulse and Monsoon have all pulled out of Waterford in recent years, and word is that another UK chain is about to go. “It’s about turnover,” says the businessman. “All these people talk to one another, and the word is that we’re a basket case to be avoided. The image of us is that we’re in decline, that we have very high unemployment and poor disposable spend.”

Des Purcell of Purcell Properties suggests the problem is overstated. “It’s not as bad as what’s been written about it or as what is perceived,” he says. “There’s been overkill and lot of negativity about the city.”

Distress and decimation

But to a visitor the shopping area looks just as the measured, straight-talking city and county manager, Michael Walsh, describes it : “in distress”. Or as the newly elected Independent councillor Eddie Mulligan puts it: “decimated”. Even the autism-charity shop is having a closing-down sale. “Survival is the new success in Waterford,” says Mulligan.

It might be quicker to name the big retailers that remain. “Debenhams, Boots, Argos, McDonald’s, Supermac’s – and Penneys, who’ve just spent €10 million on a new extension they’re just finishing out,” says Purcell in an upbeat tone.

It’s not exactly a roll-call of city-centre glamour magnets, though, is it? “It is difficult getting major names to come to the city,” he says. “But we know why the shops are shut. It’s because the unemployment rate among 18-35s is about 35 per cent in this city. That’s the shopping age group, the young ones who’ll spend money on the gear, the gin and tonics, the holidays.”

Mulligan, whose own paint business closed down 18 months ago, says it’s also about the inadequate size of the premises on offer.

The Celtic Tiger mainstay of a monumental new shopping centre was meant to be the city’s retail saviour. Instead the shambolic entrance to the vast derelict site on Michael Street is announced with a monumental works, with headstones in various stages of completion lying around. The site is in Nama.

Meanwhile, contrary to the national trend, Waterford rents are still declining, and house prices are among the lowest in the country. To cap it all, the most prominent site in Waterford, that of the Ard Rí Hotel, overlooking the city, has been a derelict eyesore for nearly 10 years.

“It wasn’t always this way,” says Purcell. “There was a time when we had 350,000 visitors a year coming to Waterford Crystal” – or the Glass, as it is known around the city. “No other town was so dependent on the flagship names . . . and they’re lost.”

The genial estate agent then does something that becomes deeply familiar in Waterford: he looks to IDA Ireland and finds it wanting. Then he looks to the Cabinet table and sees nobody who cares about Waterford. “Where is the IDA? It must be the best-kept secret in Europe. They’re abysmal. They moved their main office from here to Cork. And we have no clout at the Cabinet table. There is a profound sense of anger in the business community that we have not got a fair crack of the whip. They say it’s the CEO of a company that decides where to go, but isn’t it an amazing coincidence that all the CEOs have such a passion for Cork and Dublin?”

Camelot era

Virtually every conversation in Waterford begins or ends, morosely, with a comparison with Cork, or Dublin, or Limerick, or Galway. The days of Martin Cullen as Waterford’s man in the Cabinet are viewed almost as a Camelot era in hindsight. Is it any coincidence, asks one sensible man, that Galway, similar in scale to Waterford 30 years ago and now outstripping it by a mile, has had a Minister for the past 40 years?

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