Business leaders are confident about the prospects for growth in Cork despite the challenges facing the region. Speakers from the food, pharmaceutical and farming sectors were among those to speak at the Cork County on the Rise event organised by the Irish Examiner.
They acknowledged a range of issues facing the region, including Brexit, rural decline and an ageing population, but all remain positive about the growth potential in the area. Barry Mulcahy, plant manager at MSD Brinny, said he remains confident about the future of foreign direct investment in Cork.
He was speaking in the context of the recent announcement of job losses at Novartis, which will see up to 320 people lose their jobs at the company's Ringaskiddy plant in the coming years. However, Mr Mulcahy said that the pharmaceutical industry in Cork has close to zero unemployment and that he is confident that the talent pool will continue to draw in international operators.
"It is very challenging for Novartis and our colleagues there," he said. "But if you look at the industry overall, unemployment is very low. I am confident that the industry will absorb jobs."
He said that Brexit poses challenges, not least in terms of the uncertainty over what impact it could have on the sector, but said that the reputation of Ireland as a place to do business continues to grow. Tim Lucey, chief executive of Cork County Council, said that tax incentives could be used to encourage further regeneration in towns.
He said these could be particularly useful in regenerating spaces above businesses on main streets for housing. Mr Lucey said that the picture in towns is much more positive than it was just a few years ago.
"We have a very healthy sector SME sector that is working within the economy," he said.
From 2006 to 2016, there were significant challenges in every sector, including retail and local services but this is changing. At one stage, Youghal had vacancy rates of 24%. This now around 11% to 12%. There is an issue of how we support town centres to regenerate themselves.
Kevin Aherne, leading food advocate and owner of Sage restaurant in Midleton, said that the food sector represents a major growth area in Ireland and that Cork can lead this. It is important to stand behind food producers and improve connectivity with consumers, he said.
Mr Aherne said that the conversation about Cork food always centres on the idea of West Cork, North Cork and East Cork. He said that the narrative needs to change.
"I think we should just be talking about Cork as a hub. It is the biggest growing industry in the country, the food sector," he said, adding that it can continue to grow further.
Pat McCormack, president of the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers' Association (ICMSA), said that farming is facing challenges but there are opportunities in the sector too. He noted the age profile of many farmers, citing an average age of 57, and said that it is important to attract young people to the sector.
"Diversification is a critical part of it," he said. "We want to see this in dairy but also in tillage, beef and sheep farming; we all need to prosper."