August 3 - UL must show real ambition for city centre

In its 40th year, the University of Limerick has announced the most ambitious development plan in its history, almost half of it to be financed by a €100 million loan from the European Investment Bank.

In its 40th year, the University of Limerick has announced the most ambitious development plan in its history, almost half of it to be financed by a €100 million loan from the European Investment Bank.

UL has come a great distance since NIHE was set up by Ed Walsh and others. Between students and staff, the campus now has a population of around 14,000, making it the third largest settlement on the Shannon after Athlone and the city of Limerick itself.

Families in the city and county are grateful that UL has grown in stature and their loved ones no longer feel it necessary to travel to Cork or Dublin to pursue their studies.

But the growth in prestige of UL as an institution over the past two decades has coincided with a decline in fortunes of the city centre.

For a city with such a large student population, one would expect its heart to have a more vibrant night-life and music scene, for example. That it hasn’t is reflective not only of the physical distance of the campus from O’Connell Street but also of a certain institutional indifference to the life of the city over the years.

Limerick City Council’s Tom Enright surely spoke for many last week when he called upon the “powers-that-be” in Plassey to “show a stronger commitment” to the city centre.

Mr Enright got an answer this week with a clear statement from UL president Prof Don Barry that the university would establish a permanent presence in the heart of the city. That commitment, he stressed, was already part of its development plan.

The EIB loan is part of a €224 investment UL will make over five years on three sites around Limerick - on its main campus, at the acute hospital in Dooradoyle we now know as University Hospital Limerick and in the city centre.

Smart UL graduate that he is, Fine Gael’s Deputy Kieran O’Donnell has estimated that the plan will see an average investment of €850,000 into the city every week over five years - a staggering amount of money.

Sports fans will be delighted to hear part of the development plan for Plassey includes a training base for Munster Rugby.

New facilities for research, for students and faculty will also go up.

And a new research centre in the grounds of the hospital will make the region a more attractive place to work for the medical specialists the HSE has sometimes struggled to recruit here.

All of this makes for more great news during a summer in which Limerick is being blessed with the feelgood factor.

We particularly welcome Prof Barry’s “dream that in a few years’ time, there will be hundreds of students of the university participating in the life of the city, learning in the city, recreating in the city and contributing to the revitalisation of the Limerick city centre”.

We are told that further detail will not be announced until later in the year after UL has had a chance to hold talks with the EIB, with the government and other funders.

But there is certainly a significant difference between 200 students and 900 - or even fifteen hundred. UL most show real ambition here.

Just where they will study, live and recreate is also a matter of critical importance. In the heart of the city stand several blocks of rundown Georgian buildings in the ownership of Limerick City Council. The Opera Centre site is crucial to Project Limerick and City Hall must try and persuade UL to start the regeneration from here.