Killybegs development 'shipwrecked on reef of bureacracy'
by sue doherty
Furious businessmen in Killybegs say insurmountable bureaucracy is not only preventing the harbour town from reaching its potential but, even worse, driving it further and further into decline.
Both Barry Sharkey (pictured right) and John Shine (pictured bottom right) have already invested significant sums in building up businesses in Killybegs. They've also tried very hard, they say, to do more, and build a 150 berth marina at the harbour. But after too many years battling bureacracy, and too much money spent getting report after report after report to comply with the official requests, they're seriously thinking of calling it a day.
They say that, although the government invested over €50m developing the new pier from 2001-2004, the limitations on its use are too restrictive, given the fall in fishing quotas and the need to diversify.
The proof, they add, is in all the sites on the new pier that are still lying vacant, despite the Dept. of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food having advertised them for rent as far back as December, 2004.
Another key issue, the businessmen point out, is that the valuations used by the Dept. to set rents and rates for foreshore licences are "completely unrealistic".
Last but not least, the men argue that once the newly-built pier was handed over to department officials to run, the project was sunk, weighed down by the number of restrictions imposed on its use.
"A number of reports commissioned by the State have identified an over-dependency on fishing as one of the big challenges facing Killybegs," Barry comments.
"The main fishing season is now only four months of each year. To counter this, the reports identified the future development potential of Killybegs as a commercial port with full border status.
"When the new ‘Fishery Harbour Centre' was built, it was envisaged that sites within it would be leased to companies involved in importing goods and/or companies supplying services to the marine industry. Yet all the sites remain unused today. This is because the tonnage of commercial vessels using the port has not been permitted to increase, due to the refusal of government officials to make the harbour a full commercial port with border port status.
"The department has also restricted the working hours of the state employees operating the port. It is impossible to operate a shipping port on a 9 to 5 basis. The only success story has been the use of the harbour by a small number of cruise ships and the offshore oil and gas companies which brings much needed business to Killybegs in the summer months."
Cllr. Thomas Pringle, who is standing as an Independent candidate in the general election, fully shares the sentiments.
"There is a first class facility in Killybegs Harbour Center that can provide vital jobs in the southwest if the harbour is opened up to trade. The Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Food has blocked business starting up in the port.
"The excuse used is a conflict with fishing interests but the new pier unfortunately will not see a tail from March to September and they will not even allow a trial run of new business to see if it is possible for them both to live together. The fishing industry will always be a vital part of the life of Killybegs but with the automation taking place in the fish processors and the lack of development of added value products employment will decline in the onshore sector."
Barry Sharkey believes Killybegs should be the jewel in the crown of the northwest and that the current decline is a disgrace. "The first rule in business is build on your existing assets. Killybegs has a wonderful amazing asset which is one of the finest natural deep water harbours in Europe.
"The multitude of reports on Marine Tourism - by Failte Ireland, The Marine Institute, the Dept. of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and Donegal County Council have all identified Killybegs harbour as a perfect location for a commercial marina.
"In 2003, Charlie Vial, Paul O Neil and myself, set up Killybegs Marina Co. Ltd, to build a 100-150 berth marina.
"First, we were told that we had to wait for the publication of a consultants' report that Donegal County Council had commissioned. Then we had to get a letter from the Minister and then submit a number of reports including wave study, 50 year storm assessment, underwater archaeology, Bata metric survey, noise survey, environmental impact assessment and traffic impact study.
"Planning was finally granted in October 2007, subject to a foreshore licence. We applied for this and, after 18 months, were told that the foreshore licence would cost €125,000 each year. That's more than 100% of the projected income from the marina in its first few years of operation.
"We were informed that it was not possible to negotiate the proposed leasing fee which had been calculated by the Government Valuation Office.
"The only way forward was to make a completely new application and this time, they said they'd charge us €45,000 per annum year which is still very high compared to other marinas throughout the state.
"Then we asked for permission to undertake site investigation works but were told that we would have to pay €45,000, which was prohibitive, We applied for a foreshore licence purely to allow us carry out the site investigation works and paid €4,000 for that. However, the contractor couldn't carry out the works properly until 40 or so ‘unauthorised moorings' were cleared. After several months, we still hadn't been able to get the official in charge to get the moorings removed.
"That was in 2008. The recession came along and we were forced to put the project on hold after five years of work and an outlay of over €150,000. This is an example how of third world bureaucratic government can hinder rather than assist development."
John Shine's frustration is clear. "We have the resources here, the intiative, the ideas and the entrepreneurs, to make this town self-sufficient. We can create enough employment to suport the local community but we are being economically sabotaged at every turn by faceless civil servants who see it as their job to do nothing but put up obstacles.
"I've seven years left to run on my non-renewable lease on Island House. It was originally an old transit shed at the pier. Over the years previous tenants completely renovated the building, investing around €300,000 of their own money. Now the Dept. of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food wants to penalise me for those improvements, by increasing the rent by 7.5 per cent. This is when rents everywhere else are falling and there are vacant properties everywhere. And despite the fact that I can't let out the top floor and have had to lower the rent to the business occupying the ground floor.
"I asked the department to reconsider the rent, and lower it. They said no. I asked if I could have permission to change the use of the first floor, to put in a seafood bar, like the ones in Howth and Ballycastle that cater for tourists. They said no. I asked for an extension on my lease, so that, at least if I invested in the building, I would have enough time to recoup that investment. They said no. I asked them to take out the upward only rental clause in my lease. They said no.
"On top of all that, the Dept. can cancel my lease at any time, giving me just six months notice and without paying me any compensation.
"At this stage, I'm just asking to be released from my tenancy, even though I will still have to pay off a massive mortgage that I took out for the business. To add insult to injury, though, I've been informed that the Dept. may sue me for compensation if I don't serve out the full term of the lease.
"I wouldn't expect that kind of treatment from a back street money lender. The Dept. gets the benefit of all the improvements tenants have made to an old derelict building and then, asks for compensation when it gets the building back.
"How will we ever get Killybegs back on its feet again. The recession won't beat me or put Killybegs out of business, but the bureaucrats already have."
A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries said they would be making a reply to the claims but would not be able to do so before today's paper was due to go to print.