Business Irish

Sunday 19 November 2017

Arrival of Google changed game for once-decaying docklands area

Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking in Google headquarters in Dublin last year
Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking in Google headquarters in Dublin last year

An influx of technology technology firms has not only helped to rejuvenate the capital but the economy too, writes Peter Flanagan

DUBLIN's docklands area was alive with the sounds of shipping and old-style heavy industry for centuries. Stretching outwards from Grand Canal Street on the south side of the River Liffey, the area was dominated by the old Gasworks building, Boland's Mills, and row upon row of warehouses.

By the 1990s, container shipping meant that much of the industry was gone to be replaced by tumbleweed.

Today the area has been reborn as the home to a rash of US technology companies such as Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, which employ thousands of young, highly skilled and well-paid staff.

An area that was once a byword for decay has become one of the most vibrant, and wealthy areas of the capital, acquiring the nickname 'Silicon Docks'.

The transformation has been one of the great successes of the boom and has helped turn Dublin into a magnet for global technology companies. This is bringing jobs and skills that would never have been previously open to Irish people living here.

The Dublin Docklands Authority was tasked with redeveloping the site in 1997 but the game changer for the area came when Google set up in Barrow Street in 2004.

Google's momentous decision to locate in Barrow Street -- right in the heart of the Docklands -- was an unusual one at the time. Prior to that, most big non-financial firms tended to take up large greenfield sites or business parks outside of the city. Think Intel and Hewlett Packard in Kildare, or Microsoft in Sandyford.

Unlike the technology companies that manufacture goods and depend on transport links, the search giant wanted a site in the city where it now employs some 2,000 people.

Google believed the area would "attract the right kind of talent to come and work for Google in one of Europe's top cities", a spokeswoman recalls. "Furthermore Barrow Street and the surrounding docklands area were marked out for future development which Google realised would be of benefit to employees," she added.

The firm was right about the future development but much of that has come about thanks to Google's presence in the area. Without the 2,000 staff that the company has brought to the docklands, it is doubtful whether there would have been a critical mass of technology companies.

The presence of Google, and latterly Facebook, has had the knock-on effect of bringing in businesses such as coffee shops, creches and restaurants that would not have set up without the huge number of employees on their doorstep.

Robert Doyle who runs the Flavours coffee shop on Barrow Street says trading is down from the peak of the boom but still going strong.

"Google get free food in their offices so they wouldn't necessarily be a big business for us but we do get a lot of people who might be going into Google for a meeting or are meeting Google staff outside. We also get huge numbers coming in from the law firm Mason Hayes & Curran across the road from us, so things are going pretty well," he says.

"There are so many companies set up down here now, whether they are in technology, finance or law, that passing trade is as strong as ever. We're fortunate to be on such a busy street and that comes from having the likes of Google and others down here."

It's not all sweetness and light for the shops and other support services around 'Silicon Docks' however.

The nearby Spar supermarket has had to cut staff from 70 two years ago to 54 now and reduce working hours. It is surviving though. Slattery's Pub in Beggars Bush has been another big beneficiary of the influx of young professionals into 'Silicon Docks'.

Pat, a long-time employee at the bar, says the presence of "Googlers" and other staff means business is brisk throughout the week and not just at weekends.

"We get a lot of people coming in on a Monday or Tuesday night now who we wouldn't have expected to see in the past. With all the apartments and so on that have been built around here we get a lot of trade from them as well."

Property prices in the area have fallen off a cliff everywhere and 'Silicon Docks' is no different. Two-bed apartments in the Alliance Building on the Gasworks site had an asking price of about €700,000 when they were built in 2006. Now a sale of the building places an average price per apartment of a little over €200,000.

The rental market, however, is a different story. Google, Facebook, professional networking site LinkedIn and other firms in the area employ large numbers of workers from overseas. Most of these are highly skilled, highly paid, and want to live close by.

That has been reflected in the rental market around Grand Canal Dock. Broadly speaking rents for a two-bed apartment start at about €1,200. One homeowner in the docklands received more than 40 responses, mostly from Google and Facebook staff, within three days of advertising for a flatmate.

Many of the companies that are now part of 'Silicon Docks' have been brought here with IDA support. It is something IDA boss Barry O'Leary wants to continue.

"Since Google set up in 2004, the entire Grand Canal Dock area has been transformed, giving Dublin an internationally recognised cluster of internet companies who are able to rub shoulders and collaborate with each other in a concentrated area.

"Clearly the location in one concentrated space is starting to bring benefits for multinational and indigenous companies and these are likely to grow in the years ahead as more companies move in and further clustering takes place," he adds.

Ireland's generous tax regime has been a huge factor in attracting Facebook et al to Ireland but the site tends to spawn a circle of investment.

Last year Dogpatch Labs, a venture led by California investment firm Polaris Venture Partners to provide a space for startups to work and collaborate with each other, opened its first "lab" outside of the US in the Warehouse building beside Boland's Mills.

The group's man in Dublin, former IDA hand Noel Ruane, gushes about Ireland as a site for startups. Writing on Dogpatch's blog, he sums up Dublin as follows:

"When deciding where to 'do' a startup, you're looking for [a number of things]: human capital, financial capital, an established tech community combining both the most successful tech companies in the world and early stage peers. An environment that's pro-business. A location that's easily accessible and somewhere that's vibrant, energetic and where you have a great quality of life. Across any and all of these measures, Dublin is that location."

Money alone cannot buy that sort of reputation and Ireland has been boosted as well by events like the F.ounders technology summit which showcases the country as a vibrant technology centre. Set up by entrepreneur Paddy Cosgrave, F.ounders now brings in some of the top names in technology worldwide.

Past attendees have included Netflix founder Reed Hastings, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and the man behind YouTube, Chad Hurley. To a man they have spoken positively about Ireland and have taken their image of the country back to their colleagues.

'Silicon Docks' has been one of the few bright spots for the Irish economy in recent years. With firms in the International Financial Services Centre under huge pressure, the tech side of the docklands is now being looked at as the engine for growth. For the country's sake, it needs to be.

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