WHEN Limerick council official Tom Enright took on the newly created role as director of economic development at the newly merged local authority, the landscape in the city was very different.
Ownership of the Opera Centre site had still not been finalised, Limerick’s jobless rate was still high, and the city streets were quiet.
While Limerick is still by no means out of the woods, there is a new optimism surrounding the city as Mr Enright prepares to leave the city to become manager of Wexford County Council.
Over the last two years, Mr Enright has become the main point of contact in the council for economic matters, and was hugely influential in finalising the Limerick 2030 plan, which envisages a major reimagining of the city.
Launched with great fanfare last July, it will see seven parts of the city – including the Opera Centre, Arthur’s Quay and Davis Street – get a makeover. Sarsfield House will be demolished to create a ‘front garden’ for the city.
Although wholesale changes are some time away - as befits a project with a title of Limerick 2030 - Mr Enright says progress has been made on a number of “smaller projects” in the city centre.
He points to the setting up of an economic forum, chaired by Denis Brosnan and including city and county manager Conn Murray as an example of real progress.
This group addressed councillors this Monday to give an update on the plan.
One of the major projects will see Arthur’s Quay redeveloped into a city centre square, with a “modest” retail offering.
An application was expected early in 2014, but this has yet to come to fruition.
However, Mr Enright says this is only months away.
“There is a lot of work to be done on the environmental aspects of the planning application. Arthur’s Quay is a part of the quay area, and this is still part of a special area of conservation. So environmental issues need to be looked at.
“Work is also taking place on the design of the centre, including shopping, parking, the size of retail units, and how the city centre square will be developed,” he said.
He added that the retail offering will be scaled back, given the changing nature of retail in Limerick.
He said: “The decision that has to be made is what scale it will be. Given how retail is changing, and how much online retail is increasing, I don’t think there is a need or requirement for a very big retail offering in the city, as was proposed originally.”
The setting up of an economic forum is notable, as is the establishment of the Limerick Marketing Company, which has a mandate to attract almost one million tourists in the next few years. Both issues were key parts of the plan, also known as Project Limerick.
The Leader revealed last year City Council was trying to purchase the Hanging Gardens building in Henry Street.
They wanted to create clean office space for the city centre, and negotiations had opened with NAMA
This building, which sits as a shell following the financial problems of its developer Robert Butler, has however gone on the market for €800,000.
Mr Enright indicated the council has stepped back from its plans to buy the site, following this news, saying he would expect to see moves from the private sector on the site.
“Confidence is coming back to Limerick, and there is good interest for the right type of use [in this building], and it is something which will happen quickly to bring between 500 and 600 people there.”
He said the completion of the building would be a “massive statement of confidence” and would give Limerick 2030 a major boost.
“It will show people the plan is not just something on paper, but that there is actually something really positive behind it,” he said.
Something which could be detrimental to the city, however, are proposals to build a branch of Marks and Spencer at the former Parkway Valley site in Dublin Road on the outskirts of Limerick.
It is understood that a planning application is due on this site in the coming weeks.
All Mr Enright would say on this was: “We will have to wait and see what happens. But there are significant constraints into the planning status of that site.”
On a personal level, Mr Enright will miss serving Limerick after a period of almost 20 years.
But he is confident that the economic plan is at a stage now where they will happen.
He paid tribute to both Denis Brosnan and city and county manager Conn Murray for the “fantastic amount of work and commitment” they have put into revitalising the city.