Conor Healy, Chief Executive Cork Chamber interview with the Sunday Business Post.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Business Post 17/06/2018
Clearly there's been an upturn in growth, development and economic activity in Cork and the wider region over the last 12 to 24 months - do you feel the city has turned a corner and if so what are the clearest signs of a more vibrant local economy?
2018 is indeed a time of opportunity and excitement for Cork. Ireland 2040 provides a resounding endorsement of Cork as Ireland’s second city, the fastest growing city region over the next 20 years and the fulcrum of the entire southern region. One need only look to the steady level of development and planning applications as a measure. There is over 1 million square feet of private sector led office space in the pipeline some under construction with plans for elegant towers and the construction of sustainable office developments and accommodation inching further along the banks of the Lee in our docklands, an area with unrivalled potential nationally and even further afield. Our higher-level institutions are investing in the City centre, a school of business in one quarter, an art and design campus in another. There are over 2,300 student beds in planning and development. Hotels are turning underutilised properties into exciting visitor destinations with over 1,000 hotel rooms in planning or construction by the sector. Global financial services and ICT providers are locating hundreds of jobs in the city and endorsing our suburban business parks with hundreds more while a thriving life-science and agri-food sector continues to generate significant levels of new investment.
Of course, there is more to it than this. The current growth is a product of incessant challenging and progression led by individuals and businesses in every sector. But it is also a story of cohesion. In Cork the business community and stakeholders are united in transforming Cork from being a great place to do business to being the best place for business, coming together across a range of initiatives to drive this vision.
As an example, we have an exceptionally vibrant ICT cluster with a recent tech talent survey by Collins McNicholas showing 85% who have located here as being satisfied or very satisfied with their move and 80% saying that their work/life balance improved as a result of moving here. Our Financial Services Forum drives an ever-strengthening sector with a track record and serious appetite for growth. In tourism, a sector of ever increasing activity, our airport passenger and route numbers paint a picture of steady traction with Visit Cork promoting a single tourism brand, #PureCork, that paints a picture of what Cork is all about, complimenting a hugely successful business tourism offering.
Are businesses in Cork more bullish about the future or are their fears that Brexit may scupper all the progress made?
Business confidence has been in excess of 90% for quite some time currently holding at 91% yet paradoxically Brexit is consistently among the top 3 business threats alongside changing consumer spending patterns and competitiveness. It is the backdrop to everything but rather than dwell on an obstacle, most want to engage in a proactive conversation about a growth agenda. 52% expect employee numbers to grow over the next 12 months, 45% to stay the same, only 3% expecting a decrease.
Brexit remains intangible for many, with various surveys showing single digit percentages of SMEs planning for Brexit. That said, many are very focussed are looking at options such as mergers and acquisitions to maintain a foothold in each jurisdiction. Market diversification is another option being explored by others, but it doesn’t happen overnight, everything from logistics to market fit and culture must be aligned for this to work and these explorative costs are prohibitive for many. With the €300 million Brexit loan scheme, there is accessible capital but the uptake on this will be one to watch, perhaps accelerating as we approach next March.
What are the greatest opportunities available to Cork business in the short to medium term?
In Cork, with the context or Ireland 2040 the NDP and our strong economic growth, there is a great opportunity to cement our reputation as a thriving second city region on an international stage. There will be a minimum 5,000 new jobs coming on stream in the City centre alone over the next couple of years. High value jobs that will stimulate the national economy and our local businesses alike. To facilitate this, there must be progress on the development of a light rail corridor for Cork. A dedicated public transport corridor will support jobs, sustainable commuting and the drive for a thriving high-density city. It is essential that a modal shift akin to that recently reported in Dublin is realised in Cork, if it is to continue to shine as an international location for business.
At the centre of this, is the ever present potential to realise growth by simply proactively engaging in the business community. Building knowledge and connections is still of immense value and the environment in Cork is as lively as ever with new faces pushing boundaries and challenging current practices every day. As a Chamber we want this to continue. We have just launched a new strategic plan for the next 3 years combined with exciting new member services including complimentary membership for start-ups, a reduced not for profit rate and begun a partnership with Republic of Work, an exceptional co-working space in the heart of the city offering our members free and reduced rate access. In short, Corks business community is moving apace, advancing business together.
And the greatest challenges - both of a local and international nature?
Increasing economic protectionism and the rise of populism globally are ever present threats to economic stability and growth. In the context of Brexit it is clear that no status quo can be taken for granted and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that further significant changes take place across Europe.
The availability of housing for workers is an ongoing national challenge and in Cork we are working to ensure it doesn’t become a limiting factor to business. It has a significant bearing on the cost of business putting pressure on wages and is particularly challenging for those wishing to enter the market. The urban and rural regeneration funds valued at €3 billion provide an exceptional opportunity to address this in a sustainable fashion. To distil the opportunity, in Cork we have two areas of opportunity, the addition of housing in towns well served by public transport, and the intensification of high density in our City and adjacent to public transport corridors. At the docklands, we have an unrivalled opportunity with 220 hectares of brownfield, waterfront land ready for development, with apartments recently consented at Horgan’s Quay adjacent to the train station and within minutes’ walk of the city centre. Our challenge is to use this opportunity, and not to sprawl which would be a real own goal at this time of opportunity.
Diversity in the workplace provides an ongoing opportunity with the potential to further drive social cohesions which is critical to the stability of business, to create opportunities to attract people such as busy parents into the workplace and to reinforce the appeal for talent considering locating in Ireland from overseas either as individuals or as prospective investors. For example, in our recent economic survey 72% of respondents support flexible working hours. Childcare supports are an example of an area that needs improvement and will be a focal point of our 2019 budgetary submission.
Is there now an acceptance that the city boundaries will extend and if so what impact might that have on the city?
The city boundary extension is confirmed and progressing, but it is critical that implementation is without delay. It will give Cork a City boundary that is more representative of the reality of current scale and that will also accommodate future growth. The City population figure will double to over 200,000 and then jump beyond 300,000 as set out in Ireland 2040 with a metropolitan population in excess of 500,000. This is a true acknowledgement of current scale and future opportunity. Most critically, relative to 12 months ago, there is now certainty regarding the changes which is important for business. We have the structures, we have the 2040 commitments and we are now focussed on delivering together.
This article was originally published in the Sunday Business Post 17/06/2018