After a decade of declining business at Waterford Port, the semi-state has finally made the transition to a new management team — and Deputy John Deasy says legacy issues affecting local harbour users and commercial customers can now begin to be addressed.
“It’s roughly 10 years since I sought a review of the port’s entire management structure. It’s taken too long but we’re finally there,” the Waterford TD says. He believes the port can once again act as a strategic catalyst of growth for the region, but that changes were necessary for that to happen.
“This has been a protracted and difficult process. Putting a new chairman and now a proactive chief executive in place were crucial, fundamental steps.”
He recently met with the Port of Waterford Company’s new CEO, Frank Ronan, at Belview. Only a month in the job, “he has a realistic development agenda and we spoke about a number of capital investment priorities which he intends pursuing with the Department in the immediate term.”
These include a berth extension, river management measures to resolve silting problems at Cheekpoint, an upgrading of the quay walls, and a capital dredge to improve depth levels from 6.5 to 8 metres.
“These types of access improvements — which won’t happen overnight — would make a difference,” Deasy says. “But the challenge of clawing back old customers and enticing new ones will also need innovative thinking: possibly involving strategic joint ventures with shipping operators and attractive dock-level service arrangements.
The Fine Gael TD says there’s a lot of lost ground to be made up. “Waterford has gone from being one of the busiest ports in Europe in the 1980s to a shadow of that today. In 1989 the port handled 1.025 million tonnes in container traffic compared to less than 270,000t last year.
“You’re talking about a reduction in that market share from 33% to 4%, leaving Waterford way behind Dublin (4.5m tonnes) and Cork (1.9m). For Waterford to have less than a sixth of Cork’s container shipping — when it had less than a third of ours 25 years ago — shows how bad things have become.
“But the advantages available to Waterford haven’t changed,” Deasy added. “It remains the closest Irish multi-modal port to continental Europe. Volumes during the Bell Line era prove it has the strategic location and capacity. At least we’re now in a position to start rebuilding relationships and developing new connections.”
Catering for major existing customers is also a priority for the new CEO, who feels there’s a sufficient customer base within a 70km radius to provide a sustainable throughput — once Belview is marketed properly. “Ideally new port-related industries and commercial activity can also come on stream in time,” Deasy says.
As regards capital projects, two possible sources he’s looking into are the €6.7billion Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, and a proposed ‘connectivity fund’ for strategic infrastructure from the €350m sale of Aer Lingus.
“We’re also discussing the possibility of bringing some of the smaller cruise liners up the river in bad weather and facilitate berthing closer to the city itself.”