You can’t help but think of Donegal as remote. You tend to think of its wild Atlantic coast, about declining agriculture, fishing and textiles. You tend to forget about the eastern stretch of the county. So while it’s surprising to hear the chamber of commerce claim that Letterkenny is Ireland’s fastest growing provincial town, perhaps it’s not so surprising when you consider that the city of Derry, complete with international airport, is only 20 miles up the road.
Traditional sectors may be in decline, but the town managed to secure a substantial slice of boom-time multinational investment just before the whole thing went pear-shaped. US insurance company Prudential established Prumerica Systems Ireland in Letterkenny early in 2000, expanding substantially a year later to provide employment to nearly 500 people. PacifiCare, a Californian health insurer, has been up and running since 1999 and now employs close to 200.
Between them, these companies generate a level of economic activity that many towns around the country would give their eye teeth for. Proximity to the border also generates periodical retail jamborees, depending of course on which way the currency pendulum is swinging. Though it’s against them right now, the fact that Tesco is currently doubling the size of its store and retailer Argos is planning a new shop in the town tell you that longer term returns are worth holding out for.
“We’re very lucky up here,” says chamber president Gary Cooney. “Attitudes are positive and because attitudes are positive, you get positive spin-offs out of that. There’s still huge growth going on.” He lists a string of new retail, residential and commercial developments including a new Radisson hotel and a 200,000sq ft retail park.
While it’s one of the 19 towns earmarked for a metropolitan ring, Letterkenny, no more than the rest of the country, is anxious for a little more competition on broadband. One man in particular is hoping that its arrival will precipitate a spurt in information and communications technology (ICT) and e-business in the region. Facilitated by funding from the Peace and Reconciliation Fund, Finbar Rafferty has been employed by the County Enterprise Board to promote the use of IT among small and medium-sized businesses in the region. “Falling out of a study that was done two years ago of PC use in Donegal, we’ve established that 87pc of businesses have a PC on the premises, but we also established that they were only using them to a very limited extent. My mission for the next year and a half is to try to get those computers working a bit harder for their owners,” he adds.
Part of that process is InDonegal.com, essentially a local online directory run by the enterprise board and designed to give small businesses in the area a web presence. Starting out with only 51 members in July, there are now more than 750 businesses listed on the site, while Rafferty aims to have that figure on the far side of 2,000 by the summer. In addition, an Enterprise Board IT roadshow kicked off earlier this month, packing out venues around the county.
None of which is to say that Letterkenny lacks innovation in ICT. Entrepreneur Michael Faulkner of E-nterprise Net Solutions is launching a new enterprise next month, Euroxchanger.com. “We bypass the banks,” he explains. “We allow buyers to facilitate an exchange of currency via Euroxchanger as opposed to going back to the bank and paying the full spread.” It works simply by matching currency buyers with currency sellers. The company takes 1pc of the gross transaction, well below the normal bank retail spread of around 3pc. He says that running a company like Euroxchanger out of Letterkenny offers the usual lifestyle and cost advantages, while there’s ample supply of graduate talent from the Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the Magee campus of the University of Ulster up the road in Derry.
Besides a strong third-level focus on IT, at secondary level, St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny is the only school in the country to offer the GSCE in ICT to its transition year students. Featuring modules in database, spreadsheet, multimedia, web design and a substantial chunk of computer theory, teacher Edward Harvey points out that the course has no equivalent in the Republic. “Being so near Northern Ireland, a lot of our boys are going to third level there equipped with the necessary computer literacy skills. That’s what we were coming from,” he says.
Local websites are a motley lot. Donegal.com is owned by a tearoom in Pennsylvania, Donegal.net and Letterkenny.com are sister sites that give the appearance of abandonment, while Donegalnet.com offers a pretty good resource, albeit for subscribers only.
On the business side, the chamber site (www.letterkennychamber.com) and the aforementioned Enterprise Board site (www.indonegal.com), are well run and attractive. While the county council website at www.donegal.ie features broken links and stale news, its planning resources are highly developed and the information is generally sound. Head of IT, Brian Boyle admits that the website hasn’t been getting priority because of a major government pilot scheme to devolve service delivery to regional offices around the county. This has kept the focus on back-end processes. A major overhaul of the site is in the pipeline, however.
By next spring, the existing planning facilities, already the most visited section of the site, will be further enhanced. Boyle takes a pragmatic approach to the council’s web strategy, saying that while it’s an important channel, it’s only one of a number of ways of delivering services. “We did a survey of people in Donegal and indeed nationally to ascertain what was their preferred way of dealing with government. Some 70pc of them said they would prefer to do it over the telephone, which is fine. Clearly that’s a very important channel but so is your office where people walk in and so is your website. I think as time moves on, your website and your online facilities will become even more relevant,” Boyle believes.
By John Hearne