‘Future of this town has to be in tourism’

EDDIE ENGLISH, who runs a sailing school in Cobh, has no doubt about it: People in Cork city and county have a “chip on their shoulder” when it comes to his home town.

“The place isn’t ever given a chance. I know a friend who, way back when we left college, got a job in the bank and over the years was moving up the ranks. He was given the possibility at one point of being a branch manager in Cobh. Should have been a great promotion but straight away, he wasn’t looking forward to it. Because, you see, it was Cobh.”

Cobh, also known as the Great Island, is about 14km from Cork City. The only way to enter the town is via Belvelly bridge, which connects the island to the mainland. Beside the bridge is a 13th-century castle and one of the Martello towers that remain around the coast. Built during the Napoleonic Wars as an early warning system, bonfires lit on top of a tower were visible to the next, more inland tower and so a message could be spread that an invading fleet was on its way.

Cobh boasts a rich maritime history, the last port of call for the Titanic and the port where many of the 1,198 bodies from the Lusitania were taken after the liner was torpedoed in May 1915. It has also been also the departure point for between 2.5 million and 6 million Irish who emigrated to the US.

The town itself, with its picture perfect Victorian architecture, cascades down into Cork’s lower harbour from the iconic cathedral. In many ways the town has it all: the history, the geography, the endless potential.

But nonetheless, if you were to mention Cobh as a potential Kinsale to Corkonians, they’d ask “you feeling okay?”. The town has been incapable of shrugging off that “rough” nametag that invariably sticks to ports.

“The town doesn’t do itself any favours. It’s a town of knockers; Cobh people love to knock people whenever they try and do something there,” said one resident. Retailers also talk about locals not shopping in the town, choosing to travel to Midleton, Cork city, Douglas or Mahon Point to do their weekly purchasing.

“Its a chicken and egg problem then. The shops won’t go up unless people will shop here and they people won’t shop here if the shops they want aren’t here,” says Hendrick Verwey, chairman of See You in Cobh.

The lack of a strong retail heart in Cobh was problematic during the Tiger years but so little money is being spent now that in the past week alone, five shops in the town centre closed.

Cobh also has a new demographic that live in the wider urban area but don’t want to put down even the most delicate roots. They’re the first time buyers who bought in the town, forced out by Celtic Tiger prices in the city and suburbs. They may sleep in their houses in Cobh’s many new estates: but work, shop and socialise elsewhere.

“It’s very sad that many of these people have never gone out for even one night in the town,” says English.

“The story goes that a woman calls a local taxi and asks to be brought to the train station. The driver heads towards the railway station and she suddenly tells him he’s going the wrong way. Turns out after a year living here, she’d never used the local train. She had wanted to go to Kent Station in Cork.”

Aodhán Quinlan is wheeling out the last few bikes out of his shop, Rothar, on West Beach. Despite only opening last spring, he has decided to shut up shop for good. Not even the prospect of things picking up for Christmas could keep him here.

“It wasn’t too bad at the start but by mid September, it had died off on us,” he says.

“We do have a place in Carrigaline and that’s doing OK.

“The big thing is that there’s money in Carrigaline; there’s none here. Just look at the €2 shop that closed in the last few weeks. That’s the bottom of the market and that couldn’t stay in business. Cobh people don’t spend in Cobh. They leave Cobh to spend.”

Up the hill on Midleton St, Ger Curley owns Curley’s Londis and Jack Doyle’s pub.

The bar is named after one of the town’s most famous exports: Jack Doyle, “The Gorgeous Gael”, the acclaimed heavyweight boxer and Hollywood film star — the main protagonist in one of the celebrity world’s greatest stories of rags to riches and back to rags.

If you want to stay in business, Curley reckons, it’s all about keeping ahead. You have to spot the trends early on. He’s considering building a hatch between businesses so he can sell hot food from the Londis deli to his bar customers.

“In fairness, the bar has held up okay. We’re offering more to people. We’ll do food for matches and party packages for people. Customers are looking for more now if they are spending their money,” he says.

“We’ve held our own compared to other places but the spend is definitely down. In the shop, I’d see that what sells is all bargains and special offers. We’ve a local trade here more than anything and the summer is quieter for us. The schools [Coláiste Muire and St Mary’s National School] help us.

“On the pub side, emigration is affecting us. It’s only when you look at Facebook and you realise that fella is in Australia, that fella is in England, that fella is somewhere else.”

One of those planning to buy a one-way ticket soon is 18-year-old Ned Magnier who works as a bike mechanic for Aodhán Quinlan. He’s isn’t feeling cut up about emigrating as he’s practical; he needs to get a piloting licence to fulfil his dream of becoming an RAF pilot. The lessons required for a PPL licence will cost much less in Australia.

“I’m looking forward to leaving Ireland. I see it as an opportunity, there is no future for us here. Most of my friends are in college and are planning getting out straight away afterwards. People don’t have plans to stay unless they are teaching and so will find jobs here. The plan is get out,” he says.

Over the past 10 years, politicians around East Cork seemed to fixate on the past: Seeking, when decrying the lack of employment in Cobh, to recreate the heavy industry days of Verolme Dockyard, IFI, and Irish Steel.

This recession seems to have put paid to that and now everyone talks about attracting green industry and awakening the untapped potential of Cobh as a tourism centre. These are much more realistic ambitions; in recent years, the town has attracted about 50 cruise liners per year into the port. Next year is the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and everywhere from the town hall to Cove Sailing Club and the Titanic Experience, people are busying themselves ensuring that any trip to Cobh will be memorable.

However, in light of the scale of the global economic downturn, there’s little that local politicians can realistically do to stem the tide of emigration. They can, however, fight for the infrastructure that will allow the development of industry in the town, says Labour county councillor John Mulvihill.

“Renewable energy is a big hope. UCC have well developed plans for renewable energy with the iMerc project. There is a new research facility planned for Ringaskiddy. And we are hoping that all the green energy assembly work and wave energy construction can be completed out of the dockyard,” he says.

Planning permission has also been granted by Cork County Council for the development of a pontoon at Whitepoint on the outskirts of the town. This would allow the easily transfer of tourists between Cobh and Spike Island, a site rich in military history and once home to an early Christian monastery. Cork County Council stands firmly behind the reinvention of Cobh as a tourist hotspot as the local authority is eager to reap the social and economic benefits of exploiting the beauty of Cork harbour.

The potential of Cobh and the wider Cork harbour area is something that hit New Zealander, Mark Anderson when he arrived here. A former concert producer who has run tours for The Cranberries, Sharon Corr and The Waterboys, he was working on Riverdance when he fell in love with a musician with the show who happened to be from Cobh.

FAST forward six years and they are married with children, living in Cobh and Mark is heading up Titanic 100-Cobh 2012, the events planned by the town to commemorate the sinking of the ship.

“When I arrived here first, I warmed to it straight away — the way that they welcomed out of towners. It was fantastic. I thought it was a wonderful town. I think it’s really important that we focus on the positive and not dwell on the negative. We want to bring people into the town. The Titanic centenary is a really good way of doing it. We’re not exploiting Titanic to benefit the town. It’s nothing like that,” he said.

“Of course, the Titanic is a huge story and one of the biggest global maritime tragedies. We’re commemorating that but also the positives as a lot of positives came out of that. They built a big ship. Somebody had the creativity and imagination to do something huge which nobody said could be done before. We must learn from that.”

Amongst the events planned for next year include a commemorative Titanic-themed ball in mid-February with a menu reflective of the foods eaten by the original passengers. Music played at the ball will be of that era, while in April a week-long series of events is planned to commemorate the actual anniversary, including the arrival of the MS Balmoral, which is retracing the Titanic’s journey.

Later in the week, a series of outdoor concerts are planned which will tell the story of the Titanic and its connection with Cobh and Ireland.

However, for many in the town, they hope the opening of the new Titanic Experience interpretive centre at the former White Star Line building will be the enduring legacy of next year’s centenary.

The attraction is due to open in late January and looks like the very amenity that could put family cars on the road to Cobh. Holographic imagery will be used so visitors relive the experience of the 123 Irish passengers trooping in to board the ill-fated ship 100 years ago. The hour-long tour will include cinematic shows, interactive exhibitions and replicas of the various cabins used by first and second class passengers.

Gillan Joyce and his wife Sonia are behind the venture, which will employ up to 10 people eventually, as they had long loved the former White Star Line building believing it had “a very unique history and story to tell”. “The future of this town has to be tourism,” says Joyce. “You know the recession has brought some great changes. A huge amount of people have rowed in with us to make this happen, offering their help for free including Vincent McMahon from Glanmire who offered his services for free as an historical consultant. So many people from the beginning told me ‘to stay with it’ as they could see it was such a good idea,” he said.

A restaurant is being developed by local chef, Alan Murphy on the floor under Titanic Experience and Gillan Joyce is also developing an extensive craft centre, complete with artists at work, beside the interpretive centre. The idea is that cruise line passengers and tourists who travel to Cobh, but often transfer quickly to other destinations like Blarney Castle and Killarney, will instead be able to savour the Titanic Experience, do shopping and have a quality meal. If the future of Cobh is tourism, the future could begin with this project.

Gillen Joyce

The entrepreneur

IF IT wasn’t for the state’s business expansion scheme (BES), Gillen Joyce would not have been able to develop Titanic Experience Cobh, which is due to open next month.

Gillen couldn’t get a cent from the banks for the interpretive centre project, relying instead on a grant from South & East Cork Area Development, some personal funds and selling the project to individual BES investors.

“The banks all thought it was great but they wouldn’t give me a penny. It’s the same with businesses all over,” he says.

The tax relief scheme allows investors to avail of tax relief at the higher level on monies invested in BES-registered start-up companies.

Individuals can invest up to €150,000 in the fledgling companies. Titanic Experience is registered to raise up to €500,000.

“It is vital to business start-ups at the moment,” Gillen says. “I’d love to see it expanded. It made all the difference for us. Developers and high wealth individuals are vilified in the press but without them and the necessary tax break schemes aimed at them, nothing would happen in this country.”

Gillen also says that it has become so difficult to get money from the banks that legislation should be introduced to allow individuals gain immediate access to their pension funds.

“As a country, we must do whatever is necessary to get money circulating. People should be able to free up their pension funds for use in business investment. We should further develop the BES scheme. We need to get the money machine going again if we’re ever to get out of this recession,” he says.

Titanic Experience Cobh is near completion and is due to open in January. For more on the project see titanicexperiencecobh.ie

What he wanted from the budget: More tax breaks to encourage people with money to invest in small business.

Budget reaction: Welcomed the extension of the BES but expressed concern about how the planned bank extension of €3 billion to small business will be policed.

Ned Magnier

The emigrant

NED MAGNIER is one of thousands of young Irish people who see little future in this country.

The 18-year-old wants to be a RAF pilot but first he needs to gain his private pilot’s licence (PPL). However, this doesn’t come cheap and Ireland is one of the more expensive countries to do the 45 hours training required for the licence. And so he’s off to Australia with his girlfriend next year.

“I’m looking forward to leaving Ireland. I see it as an opportunity. Most of my friends are in college and are planning getting out straight away afterwards. The others have gone already. Yeah, I think our generation feel kind of hard done by. It’s the dole, college or emigrate for us,” he says.

“People are in Vancouver or Brisbane but we hear that there’s so many in Brisbane that we may have to go to Perth. Australia is also much cheaper than here for a PPL licence. I’m seeing it all as an opportunity. Ultimately though I want to be an RAF pilot. Most people don’t have plans to stay here unless they are teaching and so will find jobs here. The plan is get out,” he says.

Ned worked at Rothar, a bike shop in the town that shut last week. Ned will work from the Carrigaline shop until he leaves the country.

He says he can’t understand why the bike business fared so badly in Cobh.

“I don’t understand how it works but Carrigaline doesn’t seem to be as effected by the recession as here,” he said.

Rothar is one of five shops that closed in the town last week.

“The rent wasn’t too bad,” said Ned’s boss, Aodhán Quinlan. “We were paying half what the last tenant was paying but you know things just aren’t good. We did a Christmas club and we sold a few bikes in September, but it wasn’t significant,” he said.

What he wanted from the budget: We just need to get more money out there. Nobody is spending.

Budget reaction: Ned says that the 2% VAT hike will affect struggling small businesses. The closure of the Cobh shop means that he drives to Carrigaline every day, so he is looking at rising petrol costs because of increased carbon taxes.

Bill Mahony

The auctioneer

BILL MAHONY of O’Grady Mahony auctioneers refuses to be downbeat.

“What can I say?” he smiles. “I’m an optimist. We’re just trying to make a shilling whatever way we can. I always see opportunities.”

Bill used to employ four people at his firm just a few buildings down from the Commodore Hotel on Cobh’s Casement Square. Like many other small businesses, that’s all changed. Now, it’s just the owners trying to keep the doors open.

“Just look around at the for sale signs in this town; it’s all being sold for liquidators and receivers. At the newer estates like Rushbrook Links, for instance, the local supermarket has just closed. It employed 15 people. The supermarket at Rushbrook Manor is gone, too, now,” he says.

In 2007, O’Grady Mahony were selling 300 houses a year. Last year, they sold 10.

“There is a price at which houses will sell and if they are pegged at that price, they will sell,” Bill says. “Stressed property is coming on to the market at a low price, where due to receivership or liquidation, they have to sell. Then there are buyers who just have to sell on as they are leaving the area, splitting up or can’t afford their mortgage. These numbers are low but if priced properly, these houses can sell.

“On the other side then, there are those who waited for years to buy and have cash to buy; the cash buyers. You see some of them that need to buy now. For instance, my last sale was to a couple in their mid-30s who had held out for years on buying their home; they got a bargain.”

But Bill says the belief the property market still hasn’t bottomed out is stopping most people from signing up to a new mortgage.

“You even see public sector workers holding back as they don’t have any confidence in the market. They believe that prices are going to come down again so they will wait it out. But I do believe that there’s an underlying shortage of some kind of houses now. We don’t have semi-detached houses to sell as for many people, their levels of negative equity is so high that they can’t sell up.”

What he wanted from the budget: We need to get the overall economy going. Confidence needs to return so that people will spend their money.

Budget reaction: Bill said the budget was “generally positive”. The improved mortgage interest relief for first-time buyers, reduction in stamp duty on commercial property and abolition of capital gains if a building is bought in the next two years and held for seven are all “positives”.

Ramona Kenneally

The family

THREE years ago, Ramona Kenneally was looking forward to going back to college so she could get a job after her son started school.

Three years on and her son Cain is now six and her daughter Ann-Marie aged 11, but times have changed like she’d never have imagined.

“I have a Confirmation coming up this year and I’m just wondering where I’m going to pull the money out of for that. The children’s allowance goes on bills, the TV licence, speech and drama classes and normal school costs,” she says.

Ramona did return to college; she’s completing a childcare course at Carrignafoy Community College in Cobh. But the most she can hope for, when she finishes up, is a few morning’s work per week. With rising unemployment, creches aren’t as busy as they once were. The chances of her finding full-time employment look remote.

Her partner Chris, a gardener, is only working part-time now as the overall squeeze on disposable income, coupled with last year’s bad weather, meant he lost a lot of business. Ramona, herself, is on a back to college grant.

“We are very stretched as a family. There’s so much going out and so little coming in and the cost of living hasn’t gone down. Our big cost is heating as our house was built in 1939 and has no insulation whatsoever. We need to keep the open fire going practically 24 hours a day to keep the house warm. I am terrified about taxes increasing fuel prices,” she said.

The family don’t have a car and live in a council house so are spared the worry of meeting mortgage repayments. “It’s killing me though having to watch every little penny. It’s so hard to constantly say no to your children when the majority of their friends are doing what they want to do,” she said.

What she wanted from the budget: Hands off children’s allowance as we need it to keep going. Also, be careful on the solid fuel taxes. A lot of us depend on open fires.

Budget reaction: I’m not a bit happy with the cuts to fuel allowance or the cut in the back-to-school clothing allowance. But thankfully the children’s allowance wasn’t touched and they’re not putting carbon tax on solid fuel. The second budget was better.

Mark Anderson

The tourism chief

COBH is one of many Irish towns that can fight its way out of the recession through investing in its untapped tourism potential, says New Zealander, Mark Anderson.

And he’s a man who has travelled widely with a background in producing concert tours for the likes of The Cranberries, Sharon Corr and the Waterboys.

While working on Riverdance, he met his future wife, a musician who happened to be from Cobh.

When she brought him to the East Cork town to meet her family, he “warmed to it straight away” and several years later, the couple decided to make it their home.

Mark is now leading the town’s commemoration of the sinking of HMS Titanic, called Titanic 100-Cobh 2012. Its a vehicle that he is using to promote the town and the wider Cork Harbour.

”We want to bring people into the town. The Titanic centenary is a really good way of doing it.”

His project encapsulates what policy makers and tourist officials have long argued: Ireland has great tourism potential but must work on developing high quality products.

Amongst Mark’s plans for next year are an international short film competition, open to everyone from school kids to pensioners. “Just one element of it must relate to the Titanic but the emphasis is on creativity and imagination,” he said. The 16 best entries will be shown in an outdoor cinema being developed for the occasion. There’s also a Titanic 100 Commemoration Ball where you can eat from the menu served on the Titanic while dancing to music popular in 2012. A massive firework display on Spike Island in March should be a visual feast as owing to the island’s location, people all around the wider harbour area should be able to see the pyrotechnics.

Mark is another optimist and says Irish people must stop looking back at what they have lost since the Celtic Tiger vanished. Instead, he say, look at what yet can be achieved. He says the self belief that enabled the world’s biggest ship, HMS Titanic to be built should be remembered today.

“Two of the themes of the year are ‘imagining’ and ‘believing’. We must be creative and dare to dream. We also have to believe that anything is possible if one has the belief,” he said.

What he wanted from the budget: Ireland needs to rediscover its self belief and focus on forging a brighter future.

Budget reaction: VAT in the tourism sector remained at 9%. Exchequer support promised for ‘The Gathering’, a major year-long celebration in 2013 aimed at bringing the Irish diaspora home on holidays.

Ger Curley

The shop owner and publican

IF THERE’S one thing that Ger Curley would like to see the Government tackle, it’s the below-cost selling of alcohol at big supermarkets.

He says it’s just another nail in the coffin of the pub business but particularly, in the off-licence business.

Small businesses just can’t compete with the prices offered by the multiples, he claims.

A lot of the time, Ger says he is better off buying alcohol for his Londis off-licence from the big supermarket chains than from wholesalers.

“They are buying in such big quantities that it’s cheaper for me to buy in a supermarket than to buy off a wholesaler for the off-licence,” Ger says.

“Take a typical slab of beer; I can buy it at a wholesaler for €33 or €34 but can buy it at one of the big supermarkets for €24 or €25. Cheap alcohol is one of the big reasons why people are drinking at home so much,” he says.

“Also, anyone that has kids is staying at home. Look at how much a night out will cost after paying for a taxi, babysitting, and drink.

“Before, they’d go out drinking with their wife and not think twice. People just can’t afford to,” Bill says.

“But the bar has held up okay. We have our regulars and we’re offering more to people. We’ll do food for matches and party packages for people. Customers are looking for more now if they are spending their money. We’ve held our own compared to other places but the spend is definitely down.”

Ger says the only people that seem to have any money to spend are the people who have kept their jobs and have very small mortgages or none at all. Usually, this group tend to be in their 50s or 60s.

“I always use that phrase: ‘the best place to start business is where even the chimney is paid for,’” he laughs

What he wanted from the budget: A ban on below-cost selling of alcohol at supermarkets.

Budget reaction: The below-cost selling of alcohol is to be addressed through legislation next year. Excise duty on alcohol wasn’t increased.

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