Wednesday 23 October 2019

How Limerick went from being whipping boy of the crash to poster boy of recovery

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Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Another week and another investment for Limerick. This time it is financial services giant Northern Trust which said it plans to expand its Limerick operations, creating up to 400 jobs over the next five years.

These jobs will be added to the 1,000 people already employed by the company at two locations in the city. It has become one of the largest employers in the Mid-West region.

Limerick is riding high in terms of foreign direct investment into the city, especially compared to the problems it faced at the start of the recession when Dell shed 2,000 jobs.

In fact, the economic rejuvenation of Limerick has been one of the most remarkable stories of the post-crash era. Some 5,000 IDA-backed jobs have been created in Limerick in the last five years. A total of 8,000 jobs have been announced in the last five years, on projects expected to create 3,500 construction jobs and investments totalling €1.6bn.

The local authority has an ambitious development plan called Limerick 2030 which positions the city and its wider region as a major business centre for the future. The Limerick Twenty Thirty Strategic Development DAC (Designated Activity Company) is the first entity of its kind created by a local authority and plans to deliver over €500m worth of investment infrastructure across four sites in Limerick City, with the capacity to create in excess of 5,000 jobs over the next five years.

Back in 2009, everything looked different. The whole country was in the depression of an economic disaster but Limerick was feeling the pain particularly hard. After years of negative publicity about crime, the city was losing multinational jobs at speed. Dell announced in 2009 that it was shedding nearly 2,000 jobs. Another 2,000 in sub-supply industries where Dell was the major customer, also lost their jobs. This happened in tandem with the devastation to the construction, retail and other indigenous sectors. Shannon Airport was to experience five successive years of shrinking passenger numbers. Shannon and Foynes Port Company saw major fall-offs in activity. The IDA was sharply criticised for not organising enough site visits to attract new foreign direct investment to the region.

Former Kerry Group managing director Denis Brosnan was asked to chair a special task force to tackle the economic problems in the region. After submitting detailed reports with 30 specific recommendations, there was little optimism at first about the government implementing the changes.

In a Dáil debate in January 2010 Michael Noonan, then opposition finance spokesman, said Brosnan was the "most depressed individual" he had met in a long time. He pointed to the businessman's frustration and fear about a lack of follow-up to the task force recommendations.

Noonan said that Brosnan made it clear people in the region had three choices. They could wallow in long-term unemployment; the government could initiate a programme which would promote emigration or the government could take initiatives to create jobs in the region.

Fast forward to 2017 and the picture looks very different. Brosnan, who has given an enormous amount to seeing through change in Limerick, recently said future developments in Limerick will mean there will be no city as "advanced" in Ireland or Britain in years to come. That might sound very optimistic, but Brosnan is not someone given over to exaggeration or hubris.

The economy in the region has improved dramatically. Hotels are often full during the week with corporate customers. Several have plans to expand. Unemployment, described by Noonan in 2010 as the highest in the country, has fallen back.

The average price of a house in Limerick in April 2014 was €93,000. This year it is €132,000, an increase of 42pc.

Shannon Airport was given operational autonomy in 2013 and each year since then it has grown passenger numbers. Last year passenger numbers were up 350,000 on the 2012 figure. This year it will have seven transatlantic destinations, its highest number in 17 years.

Shannon Foynes Port Company has seen its annual tonnage rise above pre-crash levels. Its Limerick docks operation is now exporting triple what it imports. It has its own development plan in place which is looking at other revenue streams.

The city council has gone ahead and begun developing assets from office space on vacant sites in the heart of the city to film studios.

So how did all of this happen? How did Limerick go from being one of the whipping boys of the crash to one of the poster boys of the recovery?

There are several factors at play and some of them provide useful insight into what can be done for any region. Firstly, things had to get really bad before action was taken. Putting together the task force was a good start but getting someone as respected as Brosnan to chair it was very important. The number of agencies responsible for local government and job creation were greatly reduced.

One recommendation was to get rid of the job-creation role of Shannon Development and let the IDA take it over. Shannon had its own development and jobs agency but ironically, its very existence meant IDA Ireland was not as engaged as it could have been.

Brosnan's task force report recommended this. It also wanted the amalgamation of Limerick City Council, Limerick County Council and for parts of Co Clare, near the city to be taken into that zone of administration.

Brosnan has said: "I insulted every single agency in Ireland at the time when I said what I could see. Agencies spent their time going to one another's meetings and there were more people in agencies in Limerick than new jobs being created during the boom years of 2001 to 2008."

Limerick City Council and the county council were merged and under the stewardship of Conn Murray, began working on their own development plans for the region. All the stakeholders signed a "charter of convergence and cohesion" to collaborate for the city and the region.

Even towns in neighbouring areas (and counties) are beginning to think of themselves as inside the 'Limerick region' rather than ploughing their own furrow. High levels of communication and co-operation began from local government to third level education.

These have all been factors in ensuring Limerick has enjoyed even more of a post-crash lift than other parts of the country.

Another significant factor was having Michael Noonan as Finance Minister. Undoubtedly, his presence in such a key ministry was a help, whether it came to making introductions or having influence in ensuring there was government action.

The region was blessed with having a strong FDI track record which meant it had a skillset and infrastructure, from rail and the airport, to educational with University of Limerick and LIT.

It has been quick to respond to change, for example deciding to market itself as a centre for inward investment after Brexit, rather than just worry about the negative fallout of it.

The retirement of Noonan this week from Cabinet will be sorely felt in Limerick. Despite the progress made, there are inevitably fresh challenges ahead. Economic progress doesn't always mean the social problems in any area get solved.

The rejuvenation of Shannon Airport faces the challenge of a rapidly-expanding Dublin Airport.

Limerick loses a key and influential advocate at the Cabinet table this week. Also, as so much of Limerick's recovery has been built on FDI, it could be vulnerable to major shifts in Ireland's attractiveness as an investment location in the future - a turn of the tide internationally, and jobs could start to go again.

Some but not all other regions enjoy some of the advantages that Limerick has.

They have motorway and rail infrastructure, a solid FDI base, a desire to bring about change and a senior minister at Cabinet. They can learn a lot from what Limerick has done.

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