Thursday 20 June 2019

Ross Chamber's future hangs in balance

Members urged to give county chamber a chance and town and area a voice at the table where critical decisions are made

A changing New Ross famous for the Dunbrody visitor centre and JFK, with the bypass due to open later this year
A changing New Ross famous for the Dunbrody visitor centre and JFK, with the bypass due to open later this year

David Looby

For New Ross town and district to thrive and prosper post bypass opening, all businesses need to move together and work together.

This was a view which earned a sustained round of applause at a Chamber information evening about the proposed amalgamation of New Ross with Wexford and Gorey chambers, held at Creacon Wellness Retreat.

Around 50 people attended the meeting ahead of a vote on the amalgamation which is planned for later this summer.

Billy Sweetman of PWC made a case for the amalgamation, saying Co Wexford is punching well below its weight nationally when it comes to IDA and Enterprise Ireland jobs.

He said chambers of commerce organisations can help encourage economic activity in the county, bringing better paid jobs.

'Rather than having three quiet voices whispering away (in separate New Ross, Wexford and Gorey chambers), you can have one loud voice that is coherent and picks the best options that are relevant to each area.'

He said Co Wexford has a small population of 150,000 compared to cities and regions across Europe that companies are looking to set up bases in, pointing out that the towns of Wexford, Gorey and New Ross have populations of 20,000, 12,000, 8,000 people respectively giving them a smaller voice. 'For someone to locate an international industry; if you are saying please locate in Wexford, Gorey or New Ross it's much harder. You need a bigger body and mass. There are micro issues in each area but the bigger picture issues are the same.'

Mr Sweetman said a chamber is not only about its members but also the wider community, pointing out that a company will only be attracted to places that have restaurants, retail and leisure offering, adding that employers will, in turn, bring an economic benefit to the area through staff's local spend. He said chambers have always been strong on promoting training and knowledge development, suggesting that a county chamber would lead to a growth in membership.

The structure of the county chamber would see the election of a president and three vice presidents, who would work on a voluntary basis, three chamber development officers, a CEO paid between €60,000 and €80,000 and paid office staff.

The first two presidents would be either from Gorey and New Ross, the meeting heard.

Wexford County Council would provide €720,000 over the county chamber's first three years towards the cost of setting up the chamber and its offices. The council would provide office space and €30,000 per year for each of the three chamber offices to run events and festivals.

Each of the geographical areas has to maintain its voice and shouldn't feel threatened by this, Mr Sweetman said. 'An equal number of seats (at the table) for New Ross, Gorey and Wexford is hard-coded into the rules for perpetuity,' he said, pointing out that with 100 members, New Ross's members would comprise 10 per cent of the total chamber members countywide, and yet have one third of a say when it comes to making decisions.

Four board members from each area would be elected to work with the vice presidents, CEO and president on advocating for chamber members and fighting for the county and areas within the county.

Mr Sweetman said getting the right CEO is critical, adding that all chamber staff employed at the time of the amalgamation would come across into the new county chamber.

He said county councils have in recent years changed from looking after water and other services to economic development work. 'They see the chamber as an important part of developing the economy in Co Wexford.'

He said Wexford County Council will fund the chamber after a three year period if it is working.

President of Chambers Ireland Siobhan Kinsella, whose grandparents hail from Campile, addressed the crowd, saying one third of the power on the county chamber board will be given directly to New Ross chamber members.

'Wexford has always been an employment black-spot,' Ms Kinsella, who runs a nationwide recruitment business. She said most of her family had to finds work outside Co Wexford, stressing the need for a strong voice for the county.

'The county council are giving almost three quarters of a million euro to make sure there is a permanent staff there (in the chamber offices).'

She said like other county chambers across the country like in Kildare and Fingal, a Co Wexford Chamber would act to attract foreign direct investment into the county.

'We, in Chambers Ireland, bring businesses together and as soon as the IDA come calling they look to be introduced to like minded businesspeople. If you don't have a permanent executive it's very hard to do that as - as businesspeople - you are trying to staying afloat. I have seen it work in Swords and Dublin 15. I would like to see a future where I or my children can move back to a Wexford where there is employment.'

She said a county chamber would give the county a better chance to achieve the possible and to get 'a bigger piece of a bigger pie'. 'It has worked so successfully in Kildare, Meath and Fingal,' she said, adding that a county chamber would be able to get information out to members much more effectively.

Chamber secretary Mary Browne said a 75 per cent vote in favour of amalgamation is needed, adding that Gorey and Wexford chamber members have already voted yes in favour of the move.

She said by voting yes and having a chamber presence in New Ross it would protect the chamber voucher scheme which is worth €240,000 to local businesses each year.

Ms Browne said a no vote in New Ross would mean there would be no county chamber and the New Ross chamber, which could still exist in some format, would not be affiliated with Chambers Ireland as it would not have any paid staff.

'There would be doubts over the New Ross Chamber voucher scheme as there are no staff in place from June 1.'

During questions and answers John O'Shea of Glana Controlled Hygiene asked: 'Why are the council saying "take it or leave it"? Why is there basically a gun being put to our heads?.'

Ms Browne said the four chambers got together and realised that all four would not be sustainable as separate entities going into the future.

'We put together a proposal and a funding package was sought and agreed for a county chamber.'

Ms Kinsella said the council are offering something unprecedented. 'Local authorities don't give out this kind of money.'

She said a county chamber would work to stimulate economic activity and would be a permanent structure working on projects and making pitches to companies to locate within Co Wexford.

'They are offering this money to get a cohesive structure in place. They don't want to do it on their own. They are not businesspeople.'

James Kiernan of Chambers Ireland said three Kildare chambers merged three years ago and the new county chamber was recently voted the best in Ireland.

Mr Sweetman said the Co Wexford Chamber would give a voice to businesses-people in the three areas and would not be the council's voice.

'By having a chief executive who is briefed and clued in about national spatial strategy; a strong advocate for the issues business people have in this county. The (New Ross) chamber may as well be a trader's association if there are no permanent staff.'

He said three chambers would work but going down to two (Gorey and Wexford) would be pointless. 'Three is still a viable voice for the majority of the region.'

Deirdre Caulfield of Washworld and Emerald Dry Cleaners said the chamber should be talking about the impact the opening of the New Ross Bypass later this year is going to have on retail in New Ross. She said both Enniscorthy and New Ross towns are facing into the unknown.

Mr Sweetman said the bypass opening highlights the need for a strong county chamber. 'At the moment people are forced to drive through New Ross. Statistics show that people don't get out of their car in a traffic jam for a cup of coffee. You want to get people to drive into New Ross, people from Wexford and Gorey. Why not extend your network to encourage these people to come here rather than doubling down.'

Mr O'Shea was critical of Wexford County Council's 3 per cent rates hike, which is going towards funding economic development in New Ross, including towards the building of an advance factory.

He said New Ross needs a trader's association, adding that the downtown of New Ross is dying because local people are not shopping locally. He said only the progressive businesspeople in New Ross are making a living.

Mr Kiernan said a local chamber office that is staffed is important for business owners as it can work on issues and lobby for the council to reduce rates, parking charges and drive increased footfall in the town.

Ms Kinsella said at present New Ross chamber members don't have a say in decisions being made at county level. 'This (county chamber) will take it up a notch from being a trader's association,' to which Anna Furlong said: 'There's strength in numbers'.

Mr Sweetman said the lone voice of New Ross hasn't worked in the past.

'The economic statistics don't lie. We want tourists to go from town to town and to choose Wexford as a destination rather than arrive on a bus and go home that night.' Ms Browne said two things are happening with New Ross Chamber presently, the amalgamation and a change to how CE schemes are run. She said Teresa Delaney can no longer manage the chamber as she is employed by a separate CE company. 'That was meant to happen on February 1 but they gave us a three month grace period. If you want someone to run an office you have to pay them. If you want someone to fight for New Ross you have to pay them.'

Eileen St Ledger asked if the one third vote will always be available to New Ross directors and was assured by Mr Sweetman that it will as it will be included in the constitution of the new county chamber company.

Ms Caulfield enquired about the cost of membership in the new chamber and was told it will vary depending on the size of the business and how many staff it employs.

Phil O'Neill said the speakers were making the point that members are being told voting yes is their only option.

Anna Furlong said there seemed to be fear from some members that the New Ross Chamber would be swallowed up by the other two bigger chamber, adding that if New Ross doesn't join it will have no voice.

'Give it a chance. Its not working for us the way we would like at the minute. All the emphasis doesn't have to be on bringing tourists into New Ross, We have to bring people living in our hinterland into New Ross to shop. If we ware not in there then we have no life buoy to get to the other side.'

Lisa Cliffe of PWC urged the New Ross chamber members in attendance to pick someone who isn't a yes man to represent them.

'Don't pick a meek mouse; pick someone who won't say yes to absolutely everything so they are strong on issues that are unique to New Ross.'

Margaret Crowdle of Barrow Office Supplies said the proposed county chamber resembled a mini-county council.

A man in attendance asked if the council were trying to buy the chamber's silence. Mr Sweetman said: 'If they were trying to buy your silence they could just do nothing; as it's pretty much silence at the moment. It would be different if you had perfection here; it's probably the opposite.'

Neil Iqbal from Visit New Ross said the amalgamation was effectively merging one broken chamber with two other broken chambers and hoping that by doing this it will magically fix everything.

Mr Kiernan said when business owners and chamber members see an active chamber; a chamber that is communicating to its members and working for them, they will be encouraged.

Mr Sweetman said it is up to the CEO and board to ensure the county chamber is self-sufficient, adding that attempts were made to secure county council support for five years but were unsuccessful. He said by joining with Wexford there are numerous other benefits, including Skillnet training and being able to process certificates of origin.

Ms Browne said presently the local authority only provides funding towards chamber festivals and its Nollaig costs, adding that the chamber has never had money to pay its staff. She said no councillors or council officials would be allowed on the new board.

Tina Saridakis of The Cracked Teapot cafe said even if chamber members offered to devote two hours of their time each every month it wouldn't work. 'After six months you won't have the energy to keep going. You are doing it because you want to bring the town up and no matter what you'd do you'd always be wrong. If you sit and wait for people to come together and do something we'll go nowhere.'

She said the New Ross, Gorey and Wexford need to work together for the county to work. 'We should be thriving here in Wexford. What has Killarney got that we don't? You go to Killarney with a full wallet but it will be empty by the time you leave. We don't get visitors to spend enough. I don't think we're pleasant enough or try hard enough. We need to move together and work together and not just wait for someone else to come and say we can't go in with someone else: we can't get into bed with Wexford because they'll stab us in the back or with Gorey because we don;t know how it will work out. To not have a voice is the worst thing. What do we have to lose?'

New Ross Standard