The West is often seen as a poor relation to the East when it comes to infrastructural development, such as high speed broadband, and this is one area that new Western Development Commission (WDC) CEO Ray McGreal intends to prioritise during his tenure.
Based in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, the WDC is tasked with supporting the social and economic development of the West – Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon, Leitrim, Clare and Donegal – and particularly rural areas in the region.
Mr McGreal says the statutory body focuses on promoting the West, investing and developing local enterprise, and targeted policy research on issues such as broadband and air, sea and road access in the region.
Part of its work involves identifying deficiencies and gaps in these areas and how they might be bridged, with Mr McGreal indicating that a key focus at the moment is broadband infrastructure, particularly given Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte’s announcement last week of a national mapping exercise intended to identify areas which could not be served with high speed broadband without state intervention.
“We are very excited and very ambitious about what the West has to offer, but a prerequisite for that has got to be adequate to world class broadband because it is an inhibitor at the moment. That’s recognised, but there’s an economic viability issue there as well. One of our jobs is to make sure we make a compelling case for broadband right to the remote areas,” says Mr McGreal.
He adds that the WDC believes that when the West gets better broadband, migration here – particularly from the east coast – will increase as the region can provide a better standard of living in terms of key areas such as housing, education and rental costs per square footage for businesses.
The WDC currently has in excess of €40 million invested in over 100 enterprises, small and large, right across the region, with Mr McGreal explaining the commission provides investment through the WDC Investment Fund rather than grant aid.
“We take a stake or an interest in some level in the organisation, and that has proved to be very successful,” says Mr Mcgreal, adding that as well as providing seed and venture capital, the WDC also operates a Micro-Loan Fund for companies in the creative industries sector.
The WDC also provides practical supports for enterprises and Mr McGreal believes it will play a key role in supporting the new Local Enterprise Office (LEO) structure in the West, which will replace bodies including the Galway County and City Enterprise Board.
In addition, the WDC’s development wing is involved in developing enterprises across Europe, linking local enterprises to EU-funded projects such as Creative Edge, which aims to increase the participation of local creative organisations and businesses in global markets.
The West of Ireland’s brand in global markets is something that is a key concern for Mr McGreal, who explains that the WDC has a statutory remit to promote the region through initiatives such as LookWest.ie, which highlights the advantages of living, working and doing business in the West.
The LookWest idea has proven a successful initiative in attracting people, enterprises, and simply generating interest in the West, according to Mr McGreal, who points to case studies on the website featuring enterprises and individuals who have relocated here.
He also feels that Galway City itself “doesn’t need an awful lot of selling”. “For instance, if you talk to anybody generally about Killarney, Galway or Westport, it’s not that hard to get people to go there. Because people just sometimes need an excuse to go there,” he says.
“I have the strong belief that, if you get people to the West, it will sell itself because it’s a lot of the intangibles that have sold Galway over the years,” he says, referring to “very corporate, ambitious people” who came here when companies such as Digital, Thermo King and Nortel were first established, and ended up staying here.
He also cites the Volvo Ocean Race as a demonstration of the fact that if people come to Galway and immerse themselves in it, they may well get hooked by the lifestyle here.
Outside the city, Mr McGreal says that towns like Ballinasloe and Tuam need more investment and infrastructural development, but that road and rail access has greatly improved in the region.
In terms of air access, he considers that, with further development, Ireland West Airport Knock would serve the north of the region in the future, and Shannon Airport provide for the south of the region. Sea access is also important, and Mr McGreal says that the WDC continues to support the development of Galway Harbour.
More broadly, the Tuam native would love to see the West being branded as a unique special area. Resources are of course key to this at a time state agencies are being asked to do more with less, but Mr McGreal believes further developing the West’s international brand and reputation through inter-agency co-operation is possible.
“We know Tuscany in Italy, Brittany in Northern France, Bavaria, Andalusia, and immediately when we say those things it tells us something about the brand,” he says, adding he would love to see the West of Ireland being known as an area immediately associated with arts and culture, organic food and power, and the wild Atlantic.
“Some of the negatives we see – the rainfall and weather – actually are positives. If you ask a lot of people from Central Europe in particular who come here, they don’t come for the weather; they come here because they like the people, they like the area and they like the experience they have.”