Boarded-up, idle, and used to walk the dog: Shame of empty IDA sites

Undeveloped, underused and untenanted — the country is littered with vacant IDA sites seeking to attract foreign direct investment. The situation is particulary stark for rural areas. Pádraig Hoare investigates,

Councillor Anthony Barry outside the vacant IDA site at Ballyadam, Carrigtwohill East.

It is 12 years since one of the most significant job and foreign direct investment announcements in the history of the State was made in Cork.

The news of a $1bn (€800m) investment by pharmaceutical company Amgen that would bring more than 1,100 jobs to Carrigtwohill in east Cork was greeted with great fanfare.

The excitement was palpable with families dreaming of high-quality jobs in their locality.

Politicians couldn’t do enough to push each other out of the way to stand for photographs at the Ballyadam site.

Carrigtwohill suddenly became one of the hottest property locations in Cork. House prices, already inflated in the grip of the Celtic Tiger mirage, spiked in east Cork.

Just a year later, in 2007, the dream was shattered. Amgen indefinitely postponed the project after running into difficulty with a patent. In 2010, Amgen said it no longer wished to proceed with the project.

The company soon handed back the 133-acre site to the IDA, the authority tasked with attracting foreign direct investment into the country. It has remained idle ever since.

In Fermoy, there is a fully-serviced business campus for foreign direct investment companies lying idle for the last 16 years.

It is now best-known as a safe venue for dog walkers to let their pets roam free. The IDA’s multi-million euro park in Fermoy, which encompasses 20 acres that can be utilised by a wide range of industries, has been empty since it opened in 2002 in a blaze of positive publicity.

The park on the Dublin Road has access to water, power and the main route to either Cork or Dublin.

It has never seen a client locate there.

The IDA has rightly been lauded for its performance over the decades in bringing industry from abroad to Irish shores.

Last year was its best on record, with its client employment rising by 5.3% against the national average of 2.3%. Employment levels in foreign-owned companies reached 210,443 as of last month.

About 237 investments were secured by the IDA during the year. The organisation has been heralded for punching far above its weight across the world, particularly in the US, for persuading foreign companies to set up in Ireland.

Yet for all the victories of the IDA in companies locating in Ireland, the prevailing perception is that it is cities, or urban towns close to cities, getting all the benefits of foreign direct investment.

In June last year, it was revealed that Cork has the highest number of vacant IDA sites in Ireland — 19. About 20% of all idle factories are in Cork, predominantly in the county’s towns or on the northside of the city.

There are 104 sites available nationwide to prospective investors — 19 in Cork, including five in Cork City. There are also two each in Fermoy, Youghal, Carrigtwohill, and Kanturk.

Some 49 potential investors visited IDA sites in Cork last year. Galway has 12

vacant sites, the next highest number, followed by Dublin, with seven, and Donegal and Leitrim, with six each. Clare is the only county with no IDA sites vacant.

Charleville, Kanturk and Youghal are some of the other communities crying out for investment from foreign companies, if only they were chosen, local representatives say.

Quite why rural towns across Ireland are missing out on foreign direct investment is open to debate.

The IDA remains heralded by most, but needs more assistance from local authorities, central government and members of the Oireachtas if the regional imbalance is to be remedied, critics say.

Outside of the Amgen fiasco, Carrigtwohill has done very well from foreign direct investment with the likes of Stryker investing heavily in its site in the town’s western end.

However, the former Amgen site remains a symbol of the difficulties facing the IDA.

Cork Fine Gael county councillor Anthony Barry was chair of Carrigtwohill Community Council at the time of Amgen’s announcement.

“Amgen announcing they were investing was huge. Carrigtwohill is unique in that we have a huge industrial base anyway, with up to 5,000 people working in the area.

“The IDA has been spectacularly successful here in Carrigtwohill in many ways, with Stryker building a new plant, and the industrial estate at the western side of the town has been a fantastic success. This site where Amgen was to locate was zoned as a one-off site, it has everything and is ready to go,” he said.

It now lies idle, with speculation every so often that a giant like Ikea, Nissan or Samsung is interested.

Such speculation is said to be wildly off-base with the particular nuances of the site suiting a pharmaceutical client.

However, for all its advantages, no pharmaceutical giant has taken a bite after the Amgen non-starter.

Mr Barry said it was time to consider locating two or three clients on the site, with a new hospital for Munster to be considered to complement the area’s planned mass housing development in Water Rock and Carrigtwohill.

“Part of the jigsaw left here is the upgrade of the N25 road between Carrigtwohill and Midleton.

"I don’t believe anything can happen with this site until that happens. And I believe nothing can happen with the Water Rock masterplan area or Carrigtwohill North without this piece of dual carriageway being upgraded to a motorway. It is probably in the top five or six busiest stretches in the country. There is agricultural traffic, private residents, and it can be treacherous.

“Amgen were talking well over 1,000 jobs. Industries like that don’t pop up overnight. So maybe we’d look at a few industries here rather than one. Maybe two or three plants would complement each other.

“We should actually be looking at expanding this site. You have the railway, you have the water, you have the sewage scheme, the gas and electricity. There is nothing stopping a hospital and industry together,” he said.

Fermoy had a real track record for attracting foreign direct investment in the 1980s and 1990s that was the envy of rural towns all over Ireland.

Thanks to the efforts of figures like local businessman Michael Hanley, the town attracted thousands of jobs from companies.

The IDA and Fermoy Enterprise Board successfully showcased the town as an excellent place for foreign companies to come and do business.

A tarmacadamed road and vacant land inside the IDA site at Rathgoggan, Charleville. Picture: Eddie O’Hare.

Fermoy Enterprise Board, formed in 1986 and headed by Mr Hanley, has been hailed as a driving force in attracting hundreds of jobs to the town during the period, through companies such as Sanmina-SCI,

Metropolitan Life and Berg.

He said the current malaise for foreign direct investment not reaching rural towns was not an IDA problem.

“I would say the IDA has been absolutely first class in what it does and has been marvellous for Fermoy down through the years. I would praise it to the highest degree.

“Where I believe things went wrong is that the value of volunteering by business and community figures to showcase various towns has been discarded and not by the IDA. You had the likes of superb businesspeople in John McCarthy and Tom Cavanagh in Fermoy who would go above and beyond for the town in the past.

“The local authorities and central government have a lot to answer for. I remain appalled at how lacking the assistance was for town councils by their local authorities and central government.

“People who are willing and able to assist the IDA in showing off their towns are not being utilised and it is totally frustrating. We also have a problem with industries leaving towns and letting former premises become dilapidated and run down. How can you expect to showcase your best if rundown buildings are left behind?

“If politicians really wanted to help, they should make legislation that would leave the upkeep of sites in the hands of the last company out.”

Mr Hanley said he still had hopes for the IDA Business and Technology Park in Fermoy, saying a sharing of resources with stakeholders in neighbouring Mitchelstown to partner with the likes of Teagasc at nearby Moorepark should be explored.

“The thrill for me when the likes of Sanmina and FCI came to Fermoy was seeing people at work in their town. Fermoy is a wonderful town for companies to locate and has a proud record of handling large-scale industry handsomely. ABEC is a good example.”

Pennsylvania biopharmaceutical manufacturer ABEC located its European headquarters in Fermoy in 2015, and has thrived in the town. Yet the idle business park stands out like a
weeping sore.

County councillor Noel McCarthy said the Fermoy IDA Technology and Business Park was now best-known for recreation.

“People use it to walk their dogs. That’s what it has become. People were so excited when it was set up, we thought we would have people beating down the door to come. The IDA brought it to the highest standard, it is two minutes from the motorway and has a population ready, willing and able to work there. It is sad that in almost 20 years, there hasn’t been a soul in there.

“It cannot go on indefinitely. Cities are getting first go when it comes to IDA visits but towns cannot be left out altogether. I think the time has come for the park to be zoned for a hotel, which the town badly needs.

“The town has been crying out for a hotel that can cater for weddings or conferences. After almost 20 years, new ideas are needed. I believe the IDA would be willing to listen. Even a hotel and a couple of smaller industries in there would be fantastic for Fermoy. We cannot have this for another 20 years,” he said.

Like towns all over the country, Kanturk, Charleville and Youghal badly want new industry.

Independent county councillor Mary Linehan Foley said Youghal, once a proud manufacturing town, had seen that reputation stripped away as industry after industry left in the past two decades.

However, just because the manufacturers left doesn’t mean the desire to manufacture did, she said.

“Youghal is now totally reliant on tourism but it can be so much more. You have a workforce here that did industry proud and we had an excellent reputation as manufacturers. I’d love for the IDA to be able to promote the likes of Youghal as alternatives to Cork.

“We, like many rural towns, feel like we have been forgotten about. Look, we know the heady days of 500 people employed in one factory have gone forever, but surely there is room to encourage four or five industries with 40-50 employees. Even 20 employees — all those jobs add up and help mould a great community.

“I’d like to see the IDA being helped by the Government to showcase rural towns. I’d like to see brochures given to foreign direct investment companies highlighting the quality of life in Youghal, how we excelled in the past with industry, how we are a short distance to Waterford and Cork, and how that workforce is willing to rise to the challenge once more.

“Perhaps local authorities could look at incentives in costs like commercial rates to get foreign direct investment in. We cannot just accept that we have lost out forever. We are willing to fight for those jobs if we are assisted,” she said.

There is similar desire in north Cork towns like Kanturk, Charleville and Newmarket, according to Independent county councillor Timmy Collins.

Councillor Mary Linehan-Foley at the entrance sign to the former IDA Springfield site, Youghal. Picture: Denis Minihane.

The familiar sight of people in their cars heading for Cork is one tinged with sadness, Mr Collins said.

“There are areas of north Cork that are starved of employment. Factories like Irish Pride left towns like Kanturk and the vacuum was never filled. To be fair, the business situation improved because of proactive townspeople in Kanturk since the recession but we can’t help feel left behind when it comes to the IDA and foreign direct investment coming to north Cork.

“The IDA can and should be doing more for rural Ireland. I see people leaving for Cork and Mallow in the mornings and feel terribly sad that they can’t work in their own locality.

“People make light of the Healy-Raes in Kerry but they fight and scrap for everything they can get for Kerry. That is why people vote for them, because they feel at least they are listening. Rural Ireland has been forgotten about with the national broadband plan up in the air as well as foreign direct investment,” he said.

While Co Cork towns have felt little of the foreign direct investment miracle of recent years, the northside of Cork city has not fared much better.

Kilbarry Business Park has a number of superb industries onsite, both local and internationals, but there are some glaring empty premises at the IDA site.

Some buildings lie in an almost derelict state, while a foreign direct investment firm present in Kilbarry for 30 years, French firm Yves Rocher, announced just before Christmas it was to close.

Fianna Fáil TD for Cork North Central, Billy Kelleher has been critical of the lack of investment in Kilbarry and the northside of the city as a whole. The IDA can only do so much, he said, without a commitment from the Government for the Northern Ring Road, the most vital road infrastructure in Cork, he said.

According to business leaders, the long-mooted northern ringroad from the Glanmire bypass towards Poulavone in Ballincollig would open up the area’s economic potential.

Proponents argue that Cork’s northside has shown its potential to handle the biggest companies, pointing to Apple in Hollyhill. Foreign direct investment on a smaller scale in the northside could really take off with that infrastructure in place, say business and political leaders.

Mr Kelleher says the IDA site at Kilbarry has been underutilised for years.

“The IDA must start talking to the city and county councils about their infrastructural plans for the northside. Without improved access, the Kilbarry IDA site will continue to see the grass grow and nothing else,” he said.

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