When the people of Wexford tell you that they saw little of the Celtic tiger, you have to believe them. Between 1996 and 2002, the town’s population fell by a little under 1pc. A raft of reports has indicated below-average levels of house ownership, car ownership and participation in third-level education.
Nor did the absence of any real boom insulate the town from the slowdown as the closures of Wexford Weaving, Pierce Engineering and Electronix over the last two years have swelled numbers on the live register.
However, Emer Lovett, chief executive of Wexford Chamber of Commerce, says that the town has turned a corner in the past year: “We have been through a rough time but the town is seeing unprecedented levels of growth at the moment. It’s actually an exciting time in Wexford. There’s well over €100m being invested in Wexford at the moment.”
However, it would be misleading to suggest that the knowledge economy has taken a firm hold in the south east. Lars O’Reilly has just opened Wexford’s first internet cafe, IO Cafe, in Cornmarket. “It’s tough enough,” he says. “I think small towns in particular are not good at adapting to new ideas. When we were setting up there was an awful lot of worry from my landlord, certain members of the public and the planning department about access to pornography and stuff like that.”
Having said that, the seven weeks since he opened have seen a steady increase in business. Moreover, the six internet-enabled PCs in the Wexford County Library are constantly oversubscribed. “They’re mainly used for research and study purposes,” says Rita O’Brien at the library. “They’re used for email a lot and for leisure and hobbies. A minority would use them for distance learning as well. It’s been a real success story for us. We’ve actually run some courses on internet usage for older people. There has been a good take up and a huge demand.”
Of the local non-private sector websites, the library’s one is by far the most impressive. Its entire collection of books and periodicals is fully searchable online and once you’ve found what you’re looking for you can click to reserve it. The local authority sites – both county council and borough council – while providing access to the Government’s suite of Reach services, are primarily information based.
You don’t talk to Wexford IT people for too long before the subject of ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line), or the lack thereof, begins to dominate the conversation. O’Reilly has high-speed access via a satellite uplink from Orbitlink. “It’s the only alternative down here,” he explains. “We don’t have ADSL yet, which is actually killing my business. It’s a necessity, a core component of my business. The only reason we were able to set up was because this company was distributing the satellite link, but it is expensive. You’re talking about €400 a month including Vat.”
According to Matt Glowatz, MD of Wexford-based software and internet developer Web IT, the irony is that the high-speed backbone runs past his door. He’s sometimes tempted to get a shovel and hook himself up. Esat BT reckons it will have it up and running within weeks but Glowatz has seen too many telescopic deadlines to get excited about this one. Once you get over that hurdle, however, Wexford is a great place to do business.
“The main upside, especially during the boom time, you could actually get people down in Wexford,” Glowatz comments. “They wouldn’t just work for you for six months and then move to another company. Staff loyalty is much higher than in Dublin. To run a business here is much cheaper than in Dublin or even Limerick, Cork, Galway or Waterford.”
Beyond broadband, he would like to see a greater government commitment to the knowledge economy. Without training and awareness, you will not break down attitudes that continue to see the web as synonymous with porn and credit card fraud. Nor are small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) taking the net to heart. He elaborates on a recent internet and business survey he conducted with the local chamber of commerce. “More than 75pc of people in response to the question said ‘yes, we have a website and we use email, but we don’t keep our website up to date and we don’t have an e-business strategy’. That, I believe, comes straight back to the question of what is the biggest challenge from the Wexford point of view? There’s no sufficient awareness programme from the enterprise board or even the chamber or local government.”
While the will may be there, the cash is not. Sean Mythen, CEO of Wexford County Enterprise Board, has been active in pushing the electronic agenda. He was part of the three-man committee that put together the Empower program which did much – while funding was available – to help SMEs get online. Following on work done in conjunction with Memorial University in Newfoundland, the Wexford Enterprise Board and Waterford Institute of Technology are now working on the development of distance learning modules for the small business sector. Two pilot projects run with 25 Irish SMEs using some of the materials developed have yielded interesting results.
“How it worked out was a bit disappointing but what we learned from it was far more interesting,” Mythen says. “People were embarrassed to actually declare their state of expertise to use this sort of technology. They weren’t upfront about their ability to use it. Most people at this stage would be able to do a basic search and maybe find a site but to start engaging in chatrooms and downloading information and so on, you’d be amazed by the number of small businesses that are just not able to do it.”
Mythen understands why this is the case. If the web promised a solution to all the problems that small businesses encounter, awareness wouldn’t be an issue. “It’s only an issue for them when there’s an urgency about it. Getting them involved with the semantics of something that they don’t see an immediate urgency about is a whole different ball game,” he concludes.
By John Hearne