A very passionate advocate for Waterford with over 40 years of professional know-how, a great deal of which has been spent at executive level within the private sector, called me early on Tuesday morning last. His tone was one of immediate concern and he’d clearly ingested breakfast earlier than myself that same morning. He’d learned of the chief details of the City & County Council’s Urban Regeneration Development Fund (URDF) application to Central Government, which the media had gained a look at as last week’s deadline approached (too late for us, alas). And in the 20-plus minutes in which he barely drew breath, he got a lot of stuff off his chest, every word of it articulate.
“Why is it Waterford seems to get shouldered of the ball so much of the time?” he began. “Why is it we’re the ones that so regularly either have something that was created and honed here taken away from us and taken elsewhere or simply shut down? Take Glanbia, which is a case study when it comes to this sort of thing. Back in July, they announced plans for a €130 million cheese plant in Portlaoise. That’s right, a cheese plant. You don’t have to scratch your head too much to remember that Glanbia had a cheese plant here in Waterford, out in Kilmeaden. It produced the company’s best-known cheese, ‘the fillet of cheddar’, one of the best-known advertising slogans in the country for several years. It helped to put the village on the map but then, regretfully and disgracefully, the factory was closed in 2005. Now at the time of the closure, Glanbia committed to putting it to future use for what they referred to as ‘alternative specialist cheese production options’.
Thirteen years later, the factory gets more and more dilapidated every time I drive through Kilmeaden; someone in Glanbia must have forgotten about the plant, but it’s not just Kilmeaden that was forgotten about, the company just washed its hands of Waterford from an industrial perspective. Waterford produces the best butter in the world, we’d one of the leading cheese brands in the country and what have we now? Dilapidated or demolished plants – a generation will grow up largely unaware of the Glenville plant that was on Maypark Lane opposite the (University) hospital. There would be no Glanbia without Waterford Foods, it simply wouldn’t exist, but in the past 21 years since the (Avonmore/Waterford Foods) merger, Waterford’s dairy production heritage, in terms of local production, has been reduced to a few paragraphs on the side of a milk carton. We’re talking about something which successive generations of Waterford farm families invested their lives in to create physically uprooted from this county. And now I know Belview is only across the Suir, and it’s a world-class facility that’s already expanding, but it saddens me to see, outside of the farm shops, that the footprint of the old company has effectively been reduced to collecting milk from farmyards right across Waterford.”
Moving to his next topic, he continued: “We’re still waiting for University status. Forces outside of both Waterford and the region have stopped it from happening and they still don’t want it to happen. Twenty-five years ago, a Cork-based MEP told an executive of Waterford Foods on a trip back from Copenhagen that Waterford would never have a university, that UCC would remain the top dog. He has yet to be proven wrong. I certainly wish the current process that WIT is part of well, but if it doesn’t achieve funding equivalency with the existing universities, I really believe we should stick with what we have instead. We need to be in the Premier League when it comes to third level, we must not settle for the Championship.”
And what of the North Quay project? “The ground is shifting on this and it’s not shifting positively. I hope I’m wrong but that’s my view as things stand. There’s a question which keeps running around and around in my head: who believes in this project? Do enough people in Waterford really believe in this project?” In reply, I offer the following. Quantifying our collective depth of faith in the delivery of the North Quay project is difficult to ascertain, and if there is a local constituency prescribing to Saint Thomas’s wound-feeling disposition, one cannot blame them. But in City & County Council Chief Executive Michael Walsh, I believe we have the one official that we need to believe in this development above all others.
“Our view is that our case is fairly compelling,” Mr Walsh told this newspaper over the weekend. “There is a lot of work gone in to date and the progression of the Planning Scheme, land purchases and design for the infrastructure, along with the partnerships aligned with the schemes including the private sector, leave us in a pretty good space to deliver. The site is a nationally designated Strategic Development Zone after all that nobody else is presenting.” While no cast iron guarantee could be given by Mr Walsh about the delivery of the project, the CEO stated: “It is impossible to give absolute certainty but rest assured we will leave no stone unturned to make it happen and intend to make it happen.”
The design team for the North Quay is working diligently, while Waterford City & County Council has applied for its URDF funding. And while we await the big funding announcement, all of us, including the energised executive who called me on Tuesday morning last, must keep the faith for just a little longer. There’s a steady hand at the wheel at City Hall and we should all draw solace from that. This gentle county must remain hopeful.