Saturday 25 May 2019

Waterford: No easy fixes for a city where the recession came early


Richard Hurley, manager of the Granville Hotel, Waterford. Photo: Mary Browne
Richard Hurley, manager of the Granville Hotel, Waterford. Photo: Mary Browne
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

It is one of those much- feted sunny days in the south-east and there's a gentle, ambling, holiday quality to the mood on the streets of Waterford.

Jazz from the Forties wafts from a café in the elegant Georgian building that once housed the old Port of Waterford Company, with one of the decorative internal doors still displaying its former designation as the Ballast and Pilot Offices.

A gaggle of tourists drift by on a walking tour of Ireland's oldest city.

With the revitalisation of the Viking Triangle and the proliferation of scaffolding on buildings, it appears that Waterford is in the midst of a rebirth. But it is a slow process.

The body shock of the demise of Waterford Crystal in January 2009 can still be felt, with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

TalkTalk moved its call centre operations out of the area in 2011, with the loss of 575 jobs, while in 2007, the closure of French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Aventis cost 200 local jobs.

Ann McCarthy. Photo: Mary Browne
Ann McCarthy. Photo: Mary Browne

By 2011, Waterford was suffering the worst rate of unemployment in the whole country.

"Waterford entered recession five years before the Celtic Tiger and there was no transition to a knowledge economy," explains Dr Ray Griffin, lecturer in strategic management at Waterford Institute of Technology.

Generally speaking, the city has a lower level of education because the children of the highly skilled glass workers would have expected to follow their parents into the trade.

Now, some 500,000 young people from the south-east region are currently at third level - but at a cost, Dr Griffin reveals.

With young people gone off to college in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick, so too goes a large proportion of the family's disposable income.

It costs an estimated €13,000 to send a student away to college each year.

"That's €13,000 that isn't available to be spent in the local area," Dr Griffin points out.

He adds that the key cornerstone for Waterford to reverse its fortunes is for a university to be established in the region, to attract investment and employers.

"The city is losing half its Leaving Cert cohort every year. These people largely do not return," he said.

But amongst the gloom, there are bright spots for Waterford. It is clear that whatever happens, tourism will be crucial.

Richard Hurley, manager of the historic Granville Hotel on the Quays, reveals that when the recession first hit, he had to think of survival.

"In 2009 you didn't know where this was going, we didn't know where the bottom was," he said.

The hotel upped its standards and began to make its own home-baked blaas and scones, its own jam and marmalade and even its own gin.

It was intended as a selling point - but it saw them scoop major awards. And, crucially, the hotel did not have to lose a single member of staff during the recession.

Brexit is an unknown - but Mr Hurley is hopeful that they will continue to adapt and to survive.

Brendan Halligan, of Children's Group Link, which works with disadvantaged youngsters in Waterford, said the knock-on effects of job losses have had a clear impact.

"We see kids who aren't getting proper clothes, kids who aren't getting breakfast and young people who aren't getting the encouragement they need to grow and develop," he said.

They are looking for more funding to help young people develop their "soft skills" to give them the confidence to express themselves so that they can engage with society.

But Mr Halligan warns that there is no easy fix in reversing the fortunes of Waterford, pointing out that a university will not help those young people who are not suited to college.

He argues that the sudden closures of large industries down the years has created a legacy that they are trying to get away from.

"A bit of a cloud" still lingers around Waterford because of how poorly some companies handled industrial relations in the past, Mr Halligan says.

He added: "I've heard anecdotally that some are uncomfortable at the idea of coming to Waterford because of that - but huge strides are being made to change that reputation."

For Ann McCarthy, from Dunhill, Co Waterford, the biggest issue with life in the city is the lack of adequate health care for her son, Joshua (11).

He has a rare condition that affects his speech and mobility and he has to travel to Dublin to attend the children's hospital in Crumlin.

"We have to fight for everything," she says, explaining that she only gets extra assistance during school term time.

There was also a long time when Joshua did not have a speech therapist.

"You're watching your child deteriorate. I'm telling every politician who comes to my door," she says.

Irish Independent

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