It was described as one of the most positive meetings in Cork City in 25 years.
And as details of an estimated €500m worth of strategic development projects under way or in the pipeline for the core city centre area were outlined — projects which have the potential to deliver hundreds of construction jobs in the short term and thousands of office jobs in the long-term — it was hard to argue with that.
After an almost decade of stagnation in city centre development and a concentration of development on the outskirts, an unprecedented phase of strategic investment in the city core is about to begin, with at least five major projects due to start within the next 12 months.
As some of the country’s top developers gathered at Marine Minister Simon Coveney’s invitation in the Pegasus suite of the Clarion Hotel to brief the city’s business leaders on their plans, a tower crane could be seen through the conference room’s window on the far side of the River Lee hoisting concrete to the top of the lift shaft where construction is rapidly advancing on the €60m One Albert Quay office project — one of the largest office complexes ever to be built in the city centre.
The John Cleary Developments (JCD) project is the most advanced of all the multi-million office and retail projects which were laid out by executives from JCD, O’Callaghan Properties and BAM construction — the others include the regeneration of the Capitol Cinema site, the city’s first purpose built large-scale events centre, more office blocks on Albert Quay and Anderson’s Quay, a hotel and office block on Sullivan’s Quay, and another office block, retail units and apartments on the former Brooks Haughton site.
That’s not to mention the €60m regeneration of Pairc Uí Chaoimh, or the estimated €1bn worth of investment earmarked for Cork Harbour, which will transform the entire harbour region into one of the world’s greatest maritime and tourism centres over the coming years.
Two of eight separate harbour-related projects are already under way — the €40m clean-up of the old Irish Steel/Irish Ispat site on Haulbowline Island and another €40m plan to redevelop Spike Island as a tourist attraction, positioning it as Ireland’s answer to Alcatraz or Robben Island.
Other projects include a new multimillion cruise terminal for Cobh, and the Port of Cork’s new €100m deepwater development at Ringaskiddy which is currently awaiting a planning decision.
Building work at the Beaufort wave energy research lab, which will house one of the world’s largest wave tanks, is nearing completion.
While news of each of the various projects has been reported individually before, the combined presentation of the city centre projects highlighted the potential to the city in the coming years.
Mr Coveney said that, apart from the hundreds of construction jobs they will create, the development have the potential to create between 8,000 and 10,000 city centre-based jobs over the next few years.
“It is the combined effect of all of them — this will be transformational for Cork city,” said Mr Coveney.
“All are going to be either built, or up and running, or in construction within the next two years.
“When you add that all together in terms of increased numbers of people working in the city on construction sites, or the people working in these buildings, it will be transformational.”
Despite the positivity in the room, it was hard to escape the fact the briefing was taking place just across the river from the Elysian tower, which came to symbolise the folly of development in the Celtic Tiger boom years. Next door to the Clarion, two floors of the City Quarter office block lie empty.
However, Mr Coveney insisted that this spate of unprecedented city centre development is different.
“These projects aren’t financially viable unless they’re full of people,” he said.
“So there will be a lot of pressure on developers to find tenants, working with the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, and with local companies, to find tenants.”
He pointed to the successful track record of JCD, which, through the recession, developed the sprawling City Gate office campus in Mahon, which now houses over 3,000 employees.
JCD’s City Gate Park development is 100% occupied with tenants including Dell, DFS, RDJ solicitors, EMC, Starbucks, Energie, VCE, and FireEye — with a combined workforce of around 1,640 employees.
JCD’s neighbouring City Gate campus is also 100% occupied, with tenants including Solarwinds, Pobal, VHI Swiftcare, Hiqa, JCD, Dukes, McAfee, Sims Clinic, City Gate Dental Clinic, HedgeServ, Qualcomm, the Mater Private Hospital, and Tyco, which will move to One Albert Quay upon its completion. City Gate is home to 1,450 employees.
Mr Coveney also noted the success of Owen O’Callaghan’s Opera Lane and Half Moon St developments in the city centre, with hundreds of Apple computers staff based in his offices on Half Moon St.
“These developments won’t be built if they are going to lie idle,” he said.
“When you can get a certain percentage of your building filled in advance, then you’ll get finance to go ahead.
“When you look at what John Cleary has across the river, you have about 800 jobs already, and he’s pretty confident he’s going to fill it by the time it opens.
“If you build accommodation that is competitively priced, and is very high in terms of quality, space and light, which is what companies today demand, otherwise they’ll go elsewhere.”
Mr Coveney said 2014 was a record year for the IDA and that demand for high-quality office space in Ireland from international firms seeking to locate is strong.
“If you build quality, you will fill it,” he said.
“That’s the way we will get Cork City really buzzing — with another 6,000 to 8,000 people working here, spending money here, increasing footfall, to raise the shopping experience of Cork, and then to put a big events centre right smack in the middle of it — Cork city centre is going to be a very vibrant place in the next two or three years.”
Cork Chamber CEO Conor Healy described the meeting as “hugely positive”.
“What we will see over the next three to five years is Cork City totally transformed from an investment, job creation, retail, entertainment and attractions perspective,” he said.
However, he sounded a note of caution and urged planners and Government to make the right decisions in terms of accommodation and public transport infrastructure to maximise the potential of these huge projects.
“What we have to do now, collectively, is maximise the potential of these developments from an economic and social perspective to ensure that everybody benefits,” he said.
“The nature of these types of office developments is that their workers will have a natural tendency towards living in an urban city environment. But currently, Cork City does not have that level of housing or apartment provision to retain them in the city.
“Where will they live? How will they get around? What about parking?
“These are all valid questions — questions which over the last number of years in a more challenged economic environment were difficult to raise. But the opportunity is there now to address them.
“The challenge is to put those facilities in place now to ensure that the spend that can come and be derived from these employees is retained in the city so we can develop a city economy, which has people working and living in the same environment.
“These strategic investment projects provide a stimulus that funding is sourced from government to improve access and to improve parking in and around the city.”