JOE GILL: Twinning tech firms with towns to promote growth

Leaders of major high technology companies like Stripe and Amazon have been meeting the Government recently over their concerns about the cost of housing and availability of accommodation in Ireland.

What they really mean is the cost of rents and houses in the Dublin area, where a boom is underway, is getting out of hand.

These concerns mirror problems fast growing IT companies are having on the west coast of the US.

Cities like San Francisco are experiencing severe rental and house price inflation, forcing residents out of the city and causing logistical problems for expanding companies.

Many of the tech companies are household names that have a presence in Ireland, too.

This preamble is written as background to outlining a solution that has the capacity to address the problems these IT giants face while providing a dynamic burst of energy for a set of towns in Ireland.

These towns need to have a number of attributes to make this work.

The factors include proximity to a city airport; ample supplies of commercial units; high-speed broadband, and a supply of existing or new build houses, at affordable prices.

I can identify two towns out of many as examples of how this could work out.

Bandon and Macroom are two urban centres that offer easy access to Cork Airport.

Both are festooned with available commercial properties which are on offer at prices that seem very low compared to larger urban areas.

Both have a sizeable volume of houses and the potential to add more.

The two towns are in need of a significant injection of investment and economic activity to create viable long-term communities for families.

Now, picture delegations from each of these towns meeting one or more of the major IT companies that are struggling with suitable accommodation for their employees.

The proposal is simple but radical.

One or more of these IT juggernauts should buy a set of commercial properties and residential properties in a chosen town at a price that is materially below that on offer in the major Irish cities.

They would then use these properties for two purposes – having employees work in a cluster of modern internet connected units in the central areas of the towns, and secondly offer housing for rent or purchase at prices aligned to the costs borne by the companies themselves.

Imagine if just one company decided to do this for 150 employees in, for example, Bandon.

That could light up the environment for retail, restaurants and bars in an urban environment that could quickly match that of Clonakilty with a bit of love and care.

Schools in the town would have an injection of pupils. The local community would be re-energised by the families of 150 employees joining their urban location.

Should the Government and its agencies, not be proposing solutions like this for IT corporations who clearly like Ireland’s access to the EU market, English speaking language, low tax and access to appropriately educated third level students?

Is it beyond our wit to balance the spectacular explosion in growth taking place in the Dublin region with activity outside the capital that helps the local and national economy, while addressing strategic pressures felt by these fast moving well-paid employers?

Maybe it is an innocent ideal but the notion of a very large blue chip global IT company partnering with an individual town to progress their business models seems like a novel idea.

The Canadian e-commerce business Shopify is already active in Ireland employing people in rural homes connecting to international customers via the internet.

Stepping that up to more formal links between towns and very large employers should be part of our industrial strategy of the years ahead.

We should target at least 10 partnerships of this kind over the next two years.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are his own.


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