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’
But the affluent years of the Glass may have had an even more insidious effect, according to a prominent citizen, in the creation of a complacent, inward-looking class. “In some ways it made the city comfortable, so you lost that dynamism that is needed and you lost your leaders. If you pay one and a half times the industrial wage, the entrepreneurial guy will look to get in there rather than be an entrepreneur. There is a dynamic there that stagnated . . . Cash flow allowed complacency.”
Meanwhile, amid the terrible pain of transition from manufacturing to something else, Waterford is being forced to take a hard look at itself. “We’re not very good at self-analysis and self-criticism. We have to reinvent our image. Just because we do some clever things around historic tours and street theatre, this is not reinventing our industrial image. We collectively have a problem to solve,” says Dolphin. “But Waterford’s biggest mistake is that it looks in on itself all the time.”
Born in Birr, Co Offaly, but working in Waterford since the early 1980s, he believes he continues to be regarded as a blow-in. “There’s still a very strong thing that they need to trace you back 40 generations. Also, Waterford people are fiercely critical of Waterford people,” he says.
“I’m very conscious of the people down there in Bausch & Lomb who are terrified for their jobs, and I don’t want to be seen to be sitting on the fence in judgment, but I’ve sat on all the groups. Why aren’t they marketing us? What button are we not pressing? We need to be the best at X – IT, telecoms, pharma – and stick to that. What’s our USP?”
Shoots of hopeThere are shoots of hope. Local people whom the city and county manager, Michael Walsh, describes as everyday heroes – Heather Reynolds and Brian Barry of Eishtec, for example – are creating serious employment.
In the meantime, Walsh’s grand vision for the city is firmly focused on a potentially enormous tourism dividend from the rich Viking origins that make Waterford the oldest city in the State, celebrating its 1,100th birthday this year.
He talks about using tourism “as a reputational improvement”, a vital rebrand, a public-sector catalyst that could do for Waterford what the Guggenheim did for Bilbao or the docks redevelopment for Liverpool. It’s not pie in the sky.
A visitor wandering beyond the distressed shopping area could get whiplash if he happened without warning upon the Viking Triangle, a stunningly restored mix of ancient and modern buildings, such as the former Church of Ireland Bishop’s Palace, with its cafe and sunny terrace, and the Medieval Museum, with its curving facade of warm Bath stone (designed by the council’s architects).
Millions is being spent on new limestone paving on the south quay and on the regeneration of the narrow streets; another €6 million to €10 million from a generous Government department would help to finish it off.
Waterford needs consistency and resilience, says Walsh. Waterford Business Group, an amalgam of all interests, is making headway. Vacant premises are being loaned out to artists and maintained by the council. The Michael Street shopping centre is set to manifest in more modest form, “a better one, more sustainable in this climate”.
Foreign direct investment is looking increasingly hopeful. “There are a few things happening here that are not known about yet, because we’re not going to say anything until we’re sure of it,” says Walsh, all but tapping his nose. But they need that genie of the technological-university status. It’s the equivalent of a magic wand for almost everyone in Waterford (although they’d prefer Cork to Carlow, frankly).
As for the resilience, take a turn to the right after the headstones on Michael Street and view the marvel that is the pop-up urban garden dreamed up from the dereliction by a schoolteacher, Edel Tobin, and made flesh by John Haggis.