Rekindling a boom town

28 Aug 2003

The ebb and flow of the technology boom caught Kilkenny in its sway, but the town is learning to survive

Back in December 2000, Kilkenny Industrial Development Company held a careers seminar in the Ormonde Hotel with the aim of persuading exiles returning to the city for Christmas to stay on. Since April of that year, the marble city had welcomed job announcements from the VHI, Bank of Ireland, Deutsche Bank (subsequently renamed State Street) and a German software company, InFoScore. Things were looking up.

InFoScore’s subsequent experience offers a microcosm of post-boom Ireland. When the German company announced it was setting up in the IDA Digital Park in Loughboy, there was talk of creating up to 100 jobs within three years. This time has since elapsed and staff numbers are still stuck at 22. Given the times the tech sector has come through, it would be churlish to regard this fact as a half-empty glass. Moreover, all of the other boom-time arrivals remain in place. Again in common with the rest of the country, traditional sectors are feeling the pinch. Castlecomer in particular is reeling from the loss of 160 jobs subsequent to the closure of Comerama last December, while in the city Tex Tech is shutting down with the loss of 70 jobs.

At ground level, however, entrepreneurial activity in the city is strong. Last year, the County Enterprise Board provided financial assistance of nearly €450,000 to 45 business projects in the form of capital, employment and feasibility study grants.

Six years ago, when Kilkenny was chosen as one of Eircom’s Information Age Town finalists, it took in funding of €5m and implemented over 40 projects of all types and sizes. Kilkenny Information Age, established to manage the projects and spend the money, continues alive and well, even if the dotcom implosion and information and communications technology (ICT) downturn has taken the edge off the public’s enthusiasm for all things digital. Today, the organisation’s flagship project is a community IT enterprise centre currently under development in an 18th-century malthouse in the centre of Kilkenny city. Due to be completed in the spring, Marion O’Neill, manager of Kilkenny Information Age, hopes to provide incubation space to ICT start-ups while the centre will also offer a base from which a variety of community and business IT initiatives can be conducted. “Our vision for the development of Kilkenny in the knowledge-based economy will be to create an ICT model that integrates the application and use of ICT across all sectors,” she says.

The Information Age site, is well laid out, visually appealing and packed with information, although there is a significant broken link problem that needs addressing. The county council site, purely information based, is adequate rather than impressive. In the Central Library on John’s Quay, there are four internet-ready PCs with a further four in the Loughboy branch. High running costs in the initial year of operation prompted the introduction of charges. It costs €1.25 per half-hour for members and €3 for non-members, with 10 cent a sheet for printing. Though a little on the high side, a review in the light of falling telecoms costs is likely to result in a reduction later in the year.

Kilkenny also was one of the urban centres chosen for the installation of one of the Metropolitan Area Networks. The work itself is being managed on behalf of the six local authorities in its area by the South East Regional Authority (SERA). They’re calling the project SERPANT. Slightly disconcerting perhaps, but it’s less of a mouthful than the South East Regional Public Access Network of Telecommunications. SERA director, Tom Byrne, explains that work will be completed in the spring and a management services entity will then be employed by the Government to manage the network.

The other big acronym in the area is SEISS (South East Regional Information Society Strategy). Adopted by the regional authority at the end of 2001, it’s a plan for the development of ICT in the region for the following 20 years. “We’re very conscious of the need to take our region to the cutting edge of ICT,” says Byrne, “and to be seen as a very digitally aware and digitally advanced region. We are also trying to make our region attractive to enterprise development and inward investment because, like most regions, we’re finding it difficult to attract the Intels, the Dells and the Hewlett-Packards.” The Connected Communities initiative is another SEISS project. The five communities selected in each of the five counties in the region will be empowered to publish content on the internet. They’ll get training and software and, if at all possible, broadband access.

Thomas Marry, managing director of InFoScore, says that prior to the introduction of competition in the telecoms market, the cost of broadband was the only real disadvantage to running a software company in Kilkenny. “The recruitment of staff down here was considerably easier than it would have been in Dublin. We’re getting very high quality people who were originally from the south east area returning and staff retention is absolutely no problem. From a software development perspective, we don’t need to sit in Dublin. Your product is simply software so it’s transferable electronically, and really what you want is a place where people in a stress-free way can have a good quality of life,” he says.

Going forward, O’Neill is anxious to rekindle the enthusiasm that was felt at the launch of the project. And despite the faltering public support for ICT, she’s justifiably proud of everything that’s been achieved so far. “A lot of people got training. I trained people, girls who had left school at 14 years of age, who are in their Thirties now and they’ve actually become trainers themselves, which is very encouraging,” she notes.

By John Hearne