Wednesday 23 October 2019

Not just any port in a storm - Galway CEO sees opportunity to be part of the solution to housing and energy crises

On an even keel: Port of Galway CEO Conor O’Dowd has big plans to develop the docks and beyond
On an even keel: Port of Galway CEO Conor O’Dowd has big plans to develop the docks and beyond

Caroline Crawford

Conor O'Dowd has ambitious plans. Sitting in a boardroom that looks out across Galway Bay, the CEO of the Port of Galway is looking forward to a time when the entire inner harbour is a magnet for tourists and locals. Redeveloping the port will re-orient the city back to its origins - facing out to sea.

Just over six months into the role, O'Dowd (47) has hit the ground running, driving forward plans including an ambitious overhaul of the entire port, developing the inner harbour for housing, tourism and cruise facilities, growing port traffic with a focus on green energy and enticing more business into the area with an industrial park.

The inner harbour plans envision high-quality commercial and residential blocks that include retail, leisure and cultural elements alongside public spaces.It's as much urban renewal as maritime development.

"The cultural aspect is an important part of our development level. We don't want the area to be just populated during the day with workers and then at night by people sleeping, it'll be designed in such a way as to draw people towards us 24/7," says Mr O'Dowd.

"The idea would be that you'd have people working, living, playing and enjoying the lands on which you're currently sitting. The shipping piece will be moved out to the new port, opening the inner harbour for marine activity and water-based leisure.

"In many ways it will open up the dock to the public, so you really get a reorientation of the city back to sea," he says.

One aspect of enticing people down to a newly developed harbour is cycleways and walking paths, linking both sides of the city, with a cultural, entertainment space in the middle.

While the overhaul has been in the pipeline for several years, a stumbling block had been the delivery of replacement habitats to compensate for those impacted by the port extension. Earlier this year the port concluded this stage of the process and has now submitted its final Compensatory Measures Report to An Bord Pleanála. The first round of public consultation of the plans is now expected in the final quarter of the year with a final decision expected by the end of next year.

Originally from Roscommon, Mr O'Dowd had been Dublin-based for most of his career with KPMG, joining the professional services company straight out of college in Rathmines. He started out in the audit section of the firm's Business Development Services division, helping companies to grow and develop. He later became Audit Director of the Consumer and Industrial Markets division until his relocation with his family to Galway in 2007.

Since his move West he has seen major changes to the city and has also proved a major player in forming that change.

His role with KPMG in Galway and as President of the Galway Chamber of Commerce has given him an insight into the thriving startup community in the city and region. And that is something he has run with - he was instrumental in setting up the Portershed, a space for tech start-ups. The once-abandoned Guinness storehouse has proven such a draw for FDI and startups that it is now seen as the first step towards an innovation district in Galway.

"The Portershed was a real eye-opener for me. It was a fantastic project to be involved in. We always thought it would go well with the startup community but a very welcome surprise would be how much the community are using it. It's become a much-loved building in a very short time.

"The calibre of business people we see is very, very high. It was a big part of our mission in the Portershed to try and create more awareness of these types of success stories and to help bring the venture capital community into the region," he says.

Describing it as "an absolute magnet for FDI", O'Dowd is particularly proud of how the space has become a vital selling point for the IDA. He sees it as part of the property solution for the city, allowing companies an initial foothold and helping them grow into larger premises down the line.

A major draw in the plans for the inner harbour is the additional housing in a city with a desperate need for accommodation.

It's something O'Dowd is currently working through in the Master Plan - liaising with the city council and stakeholders - but he's reticent about hazarding a guess on the number of units.

"You really see the desire for people to live and work in a downtown location. But the beauty of it is because of our location, commuting without car use is very possible, because you're right beside the best public transport links, in terms of buses and trains. As a concept, I think it works," he says.

Another major change will be opening the harbour to accommodate cruise ships. Currently ships must dock in the bay with passengers ferried into shore.

While O'Dowd is reticent to be drawn on the exact numbers of cruise ships the new plans could accommodate he is confident it will result in a 50pc increase.

"What I can say is it's very clear in our negotiations with various cruise companies that they are very interested in our plans. A new port would allow us to bring cruise ships up to the actual quay itself, it would be easier in terms of disembarkation and allow us to take larger ships.

"It would be a step change in terms of cruise activity. It wouldn't be an incremental increase," he adds.

Still proud of his Roscommon roots, O'Dowd is an ardent supporter of the Rossies, and was in Pearse Stadium cheering on their win against Galway. While the port takes up most of his time, he still gets to enjoy the quality of life in the West. Pastimes like golf, horse racing and his beloved GAA are all on his doorstep.

"This job is a good solid day but coming into the summer as the traffic eases off I might get for a few holes of golf on the way home. And July will be taken up with the Super 8s," he smiles.

"Galway is mighty for kids, it couldn't get better and that's a huge thing. That's it in many ways."

While there is a sizeable body of work ahead, O'Dowd is confident that the plans will come to fruition, with projects such as this promoted in the National Planning Framework and EU policy.

He also believes the port has a significant role to play in terms of the Climate Action Plan.

"If you look at the Climate Action Plan it calls for significant amounts of onshore wind. We have a direct link to the M6 corridor and an obvious place to import wind turbines would be through Galway harbour because we've got good access to the motorway."

The port has experience with turbine importation. It was a key partner for the SSE windfarm in Connemara and has also been involved in projects in Mayo. It's also considering the importation of biomass for district heating projects.

"We see our port as particularly important given the opportunities for renewable energy in the wider region, we see it as forming part of that solution," adds Mr O'Dowd.

This view also ties into the criteria of the trans-European transport network (TEN-T), which plans to develop a Europe-wide network of roads, railways, waterways, ports and airports.

Mr O'Dowd wants the Port of Galway included in that strategy. Waterford, Limerick and Cork ports are already included under TEN-T status.

"I think if you're calling out Galway, as an engine of the country's economic prosperity in the future and the driver of regional growth, then I think the extension of the TEN-T to our port is a logical extension of that policy," he says.

According to Mr O'Dowd, the Port of Galway excels in terms of its contribution to the regional and wider Irish economy in areas such as renewable energy and connectivity to the islands.

While the port is currently used to transport goods to the Aran islands, from next summer it will also provide a passenger ferry - removing the need for tourists to travel to Rossaveal Harbour to access the islands.

"The TEN-T affords us an opportunity to come back and say, 'Yeah, tonnage and passenger numbers are important. But there's other factors such as your strategic importance to the region'. And in terms of allowing us to engage with the island community and provide for their everyday needs, and critically, the opportunity in terms of renewable energy, we can be hugely important," he says.

"Obviously, the Aran Islands and Galway generally is very much to the periphery of the EU. And it's our view that these are areas that should be supported from TEN-T."

All this on top of the day-to-day business of running a port. The core activity is shipping and the team including Captain Brian Sheridan are actively identifying how to help existing customers while continuing to run very profitable car parking and leasing operations.

While Mr O'Dowd acknowledges there is a volume of work to be done he believes the time is right to strike.

"I think government policy and accepted policy is moving in our favour in terms of the development of Galway as one of the four regional cities, the realisation at government level and among the public of the importance of developing inner city lands, rather than allowing them to be idle," he says.

"And also, importantly, I think there's a general awareness of the importance of the green agenda. We believe our port can be an important part of that solution as well."

As for the future, Mr O'Dowd is quietly confident his job will only get busier. "There's great interest in our project, because it's a project of a type whose time has come. It's not without its challenges. But in terms of policy, I think it does adhere and reach the goals of what is now pretty much accepted policy," he adds.

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