I'm standing on a bridge in Waterford overlooking the river Suir with Rob Cass, a Dungarvan-born representative of the Saudi Fawaz Alhokair Group. We're looking at the empty desolate North Quays and imagining a project that doesn't yet exist.
Cass points at the areas where shopping facilities, offices, apartments, a park and a footbridge will be. He believes this €350 million investment by his company (plus State funding, though only €6 million of this has been committed thus far) will be a turning point for the city.
He paints a picture of an ecologically-friendly future Waterford city with a university, a vibrant city centre and tech employees working at SMEs and innovation hubs. The State expects Waterford to grow from 53,000 to 83,000 residents by 2040, though Cass can see it growing to 115,000.
The project will be “a catalyst for hope”, he says. He talks about Waterford as a centre for new ideas, as the birthplace of Boyle’s law and Walton’s nuclear physics. “There’s a message here about belief,” he says. “You have to create a vision and believe in that vision.”
In two weeks the people of Waterford will vote on whether they want a directly elected mayor, so I have gone to Waterford to talk to people who live there about their city and its future. At the moment a lot of the plans for this future circulate around the North Quays development, and people are eagerly waiting to see if it starts in November as planned.
Ray Griffin, economist
Griffin, a Waterford Institute of Technology economist and co-author of the South East Economic Monitor, thinks there are some fundamental issues for Waterford city. It has seen, he says, "a century of decline".
He lists the things holding the city back. The biggest issue is the lack of full university status and a full university platform. This means that around half of the young people leave after their Leaving Cert. This leads to a hollowing out of the city and a lack of high-end jobs. “We need to stem the blood loss.”
Another issue, he says, is the location of the official city boundary (along the river Suir) which ultimately means that vast numbers of people who use the city are not considered when big decisions are being made. "We've an artificially suppressed boundary…We had a statutory boundary commission set up by Fine Gael but then they didn't implement it."
The hospital and its lack of 24-hour cardiac care and recent problems with its mortuary are part of another problem . "The hospital is being administered in Cork, so all the national money goes through a sieve in Cork."
Furthermore, the city needs an M24 motorway to connect it properly to Cork, Galway and Limerick ("We don't want to be shut out of that") and it needs €5 million to upgrade the airport. "That's chump change, but like the cardiac issue, the money is not what's at stake."
What is at stake, in Griffin’s view, is regional politics. He outlines the many good things about living in Waterford – the people, the schools, the sea, the mountains, the relatively cheap cost of housing, the huge potential – but he thinks it has suffered from a lack of political patronage.
So Griffin supports of the idea of an autonomous directly elected mayor even though he worries that the role is not well defined. “We’re looking for change because in this political dispensation we’re getting shafted.”
Mary Roche, former politician
Waterford's past is sometimes more visible than its future. Sitting in the café of the Bishop's Palace, former councillor Mary Roche points at the House of Waterford Crystal in the old ESB building across the road, and talks about the fight to retain some representation of it in the city.
“We couldn’t let Waterford Crystal go completely because you might as well turn out the lights and throw away the key.”
She says as a councillor she spent 20 years fighting, for a fair level of government funding, for an extension to the city boundary and for proper hospital services.
“People in Waterford feel very put upon. How many times have we seen plans? A great plan for a plaza around the clock tower? A plan to put the road underground at the quays?”
She’s a bit more hopeful about the North Quays project. “But I’ll only be happy when I see a digger…We’ve been led to the holy river so many times…We’re like, ‘yeah, show us the holes in your hands’.”
Donnchadh O Ceallachain, museum curator
In the Medieval Museum, Cork-born curator Donnchadh O Ceallachain shows me the Charter Roll of Waterford. This is a long unfurled strip of illustrated parchment, a "business plan", featuring writing and drawings so that the then mayor, William Lombard, could extract a wine trading monopoly from Edward III.
“We like to say that the mayor of Waterford in 1373 invented the world’s first PowerPoint presentation,” says O Ceallachain.
He says Waterford has had a millennium's worth of big ideas It's the oldest city in Ireland, founded by the Viking king Reginald, and for centuries it was a huge trading port and Ireland's second city.
"We were an outward looking people. We looked out at Europe, the south of England, Wales, France… up into the Baltic – that was the world. Sometimes the Irish are accused of being inward-looking, but we stood with our back to Ireland and looked out to sea."
Waterford’s cultural quarter, the Viking Triangle, is made up of the Bishop’s Palace, the Medieval Museum and Reginald’s Tower, and was first envisioned by museum director and city historian Eamon McEneaney in the 2000s.
O Ceallachain takes me to the basement of City Hall, where an exhibition lists all of the mayors through the centuries from Vikings to murderous 19th century duellists. He says he can’t comment on present day politics, but when I ask if the city has been neglected he says: “They call Waterford ‘the gentle county’. They are not a people who put themselves forward.”
Una Dunphy, election candidate
Last September, Una Dunphy and some Take Back the City activists took possession of two houses on O’Connell Street for 24 hours. “People came in and were in awe of it,” she says. “These gorgeous old heritage buildings falling apart...We just felt it needed to be done…Housing is a huge issue everywhere. People are very angry.”
Dunphy is currently running in the council elections for People Before Profit, and she has her own ideas about the city’s future. She would like to see a light rail system put on the old railway line from the port at Belview, and she would love to see more people living in the city centre with good housing and better quality jobs.
She would like to see a university in Waterford, but hates when people talk about “a brain drain” because of how hurtful this is to the young people who stay. She thinks the communities should be at the heart of city planning. “In Waterford everything follows a commercial plan, and everything else comes after that.”
Jim “Flash” Gordon, publican
Gordon, owner of the Revolution Bar and founder of the Boxworks co-working space, has already begun his mayoral campaign, "Flash for Mayor", on Facebook.
This is just a joke, he says. “I’ve no qualifications whatsoever, but I could bribe people with an extra slice of beef for lunch and get elected. I don’t have a clue how to run a budget of €180 million… I think [a directly elected mayor] is a bad idea in its current format. A clown up the street could get elected and they wouldn’t have a clue.”
Gordon (and virtually everyone else I interview) praises the current city manager Michael Walsh. He praises the 46km walking and cycling route, the Greenway, the pedestrianised city centre and the roofed part of the street known as the Apple Market.
“The city looks a lot nicer for tourists coming in. But business is still struggling. It’s not as good as it should be.”
He says this has a lot to do with shopping centres outside of the city and a lack of good housing in the city centre. “You couldn’t raise a family in the small apartments that are there at the moment.”
He is optimistic about the North Quays development. Initially retailers feared that it would take shoppers away from the city centre, but the developers have committed to building a pedestrian bridge to take people from one side to the other.
And a lot of effort has gone into securing the deal. Last year an international hospitality specialist was brought over to talk to the business owners about upping their customer service game in advance of the Saudi investors visiting the city.
Gordon's friend Brian Tynan, owner of Phelan's Pharmacy, thinks the hospitality specialist was a bit hard on them. "Waterford is a very blue-collar town. You walk into a shop, what you see is what you get, but you will get treated like royalty in nine cases out of 10."
They are both blow-ins. Phelan is from Longford. Gordon moved here as a Wexford student in the 1980s and he never left. A few years ago he turned a derelict building on Patrick Street into a co-working space, and recently started a second. He gets ideas, he says.
“Can you imagine him [as mayor] in charge of €180 million?” says Tynan.
“Oh, I’d get loads of shiny things for €180 million,” says Gordon.
Keith Molloy, shop worker
Not every retailer is happy with how things are progressing. One business owner almost shouts as he complains about the building of the Apple Market roof.
“No one ever asked me my opinion,” he yells. “They just sit in their offices saying ‘let’s dig up the streets’... My rates pay for that. ”
One of his regular customers laughs. This man has recently returned to Waterford because Dublin was unaffordable. He thinks it has improved a lot. “I remember it as all derelict buildings.”
He has heard nothing about the plebiscite for the directly elected mayor. The shopkeeper has heard of it. He is very angry about it.
“He’s the angriest man in Waterford,” says his customer.
For the record, around two-thirds of the people I talk to on the streets know nothing about the plebiscite. In general they are proud of the Greenway and the city’s heritage and community, but they point at the empty units in the nearby City Square shopping centre when I ask about the development across the river.
“If you can’t get units occupied in City Square how are you going to fill the North Quays?” says Keith Molloy who works in the Gadget Man shop.
Luke, a young musician, has more to say about the lack of mental health services. He recently spent more than six months waiting for an appointment, and he has a friend with schizophrenia who, when in crisis, is brought to St Pat’s in Dublin. “I have good friends here and they are really creative people… but we’re not being supported.”
Darach Brennan, GP
Brennan, a GP at Johnstown Medical Centre, tells me that if you have a heart attack in Waterford there is a 75 per cent chance you will be driven right by University Hospital Waterford and brought to Cork, because the local catheterisation lab only opens from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
“So if people have heart disease or angina, there’s a real fear. What do I do if something happens at night?”
For many years now locals have been fighting to have 24-hour cardiac care at their hospital, and Brennan has been on several marches about this issue (the next is on May 18th).
He says the recent mortuary scandal, in which bodies were reportedly left in corridors, was also very demoralising. “People start to have a negative impression of the hospital, and if people do that’s very sad...People [at the hospital] are working very hard and trying to do their best.”
Edel Tobin, teacher
On Thomas Hill, Edel Tobin points out the Joe Caslin mural on the derelict Ard Ri hotel overlooking the city on the other side of the river. It shows a man being held up by others and it was done in collaboration with Pieta House and Waterford Walls.
Tobin started Waterford Walls in 2015 to brighten up run-down buildings in her town with paintings by street artists from all over the world. She had seen a similar project in Djerbahood in Tunisia, "a forgotten place, a bit like Waterford".
Tobin, a primary school teacher, had previously established the pop up New Street park, which was launched by Michael D Higgins, so the council was very open to her ideas. Now there are 100 beautiful paintings across the city, and every August during the Waterford Walls Festival around half of these sites are repainted by a new cohort of artists.
Earlier, in the Waterford Walls office on O’Connell Street (the council designated “cultural quarter”), I meet a number of artistically-inclined young people who are excited by Waterford and its culture.
“Waterford needs people to come back and live here more than anything else,” says Tobin. “There aren’t many apartments, but you need to have city dwellers.”
When I ask why this painting idea has not been replicated elsewhere, she laughs and says it’s because it’s very hard work and difficult to fund.
“We have €40,000 in deficit going into our festival. We’ve people coming over from the Huffington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald…people from all over... Everyone wants a photo for their brochure or campaign. But I have to bite my tongue in frustration, ‘So why is it not being funded properly?’”
As we walk around the city, at each painting, whether the self-portrait by Australian artist Fintan Magee or the Tokyo street scene by British artist Dan Kitchener, Tobin can recall the time it took to paint it and the weather conditions on those days. She thinks Waterford has been demoralised and neglected, but that there could be a flowering of creativity here if it is nurtured.
At the very least she wants to inspire her neighbours and “attract people in to see the beauty of the city. I want them to see it the way I see it.”
VOTE ON DIRECTLY ELECTED MAYORS
On May 24th, alongside local and European elections and a divorce referendum, the people of Waterford, Limerick and Cork will be asked if they want to have directly elected mayors.
The new mayors would take over many of the decision-making powers currently held by the unelected local authority chief executives, though the full extent of this is still unclear.
They would set policy for their local authorities, but the power to enforce planning decisions, allocate social housing and grant licences and permits would remain with the chief executives. They would receive a salary of €129,854, and there would be a recall and impeachment procedure to deal with mayoral misconduct.
There are public meetings planned in each of these cities on the issue of directly elected mayors on the following dates:
Tuesday, May 14th, 2019, 7.30-9pm, Atrium, City Hall, Anglesea Street.
Waterford City and County
Wednesday, May 15th, 2019, 7.30-9pm, The Tower Hotel, The Mall.
Limerick City and County
Thursday, May 16th, 2019, 7.30-9pm, lecture theatre, Computer Science Building, University of Limerick.