Offaly is tapping into its rich history of innovation with a coordinated development strategy designed to drive the economic growth and cultural vitality of The Faithful County well into the future.
From investment in hiking and biking trails to attract visitors and boost local business, to remote working innovations, STEM-focused education, green energy and big data projects, staff in Offaly’s Local Authority are pulling together to forge a bright future for the county’s 78,000 residents.
“Sustainable economic, social and community development is our vision for Offaly,” Anna Marie Delaney, chief executive at Offaly County Council, said.
“The Local Enterprise Office (LEO) here in Offaly is dedicated to driving entrepreneurship and supporting business in the county.
“We also have a cross-departmental approach delivering projects that can add economic value and enhance the lives and surroundings of our communities. It’s really about ensuring that we’re maximising opportunities for Offaly,” Delaney said.
“It’s about ensuring that Offaly is an attractive place to live and work in or visit. It’s about place-making and ensuring that we have the necessary infrastructure in place for business and quality of life.”
Offaly County Council achieves these goals through a number of initiatives. “Our economic vision is set out in both our corporate and county development plans and our Local Enterprise Office (LEO) has a key role to play within that,” Delaney said.
“This year, in particular, the LEO here in Offaly has played a key role in providing Covid-related and other supports to businesses across the county spanning a range of business sectors.”
In light of the remote working trend kick-started by the pandemic, Offaly’s proactive strategy in this area means it is well-positioned with a number of co-working hubs already up and running.
Offaly County Council and LEO Offaly support three co-working hubs in the county. They include the Junction Business Innovation Centre in Tullamore, E-Hive in Edenderry and stream BIRR in Birr.
“Remote working is something we have been very proactive on. Our first remote working hub, The Junction Business & Innovation Centre, opened in 2013, followed by two more. We would see ourselves as a leader in the remote working space,” Delaney said.
A key priority for the Local Enterprise Office in Offaly, is to address the needs of businesses in the county in a “relevant and responsive” way, Orla Martin, Head of Enterprise at Offaly LEO, said.
“We strive to be mindful of current business needs, and to deliver programmes and initiatives that meet those needs,” Martin said.
“We also try to be cognisant of emerging trends, both locally and internationally. The transition to a low-carbon digital future is already underway in Offaly, and this informs a lot of what we do.”
This year, the busy Local Enterprise Office carried out its functions as normal until mid-March.
Following the introduction of the first raft of Covid-19 restrictions last March, however its service delivery model changed overnight.
“Our staff began working remotely while, at the same time, dealing with unprecedented numbers of business calls and enquiries,” Martin said.
“The transition to remote working was really helped by the investment we had already made in a range of technologies, such as online systems for booking training and mentoring, an online platform for grant applications, a CRM system, and a range of social media platforms.
“That investment, together with support from the IT and Finance Departments of Offaly County Council allowed us to move all aspects of our client engagement online. We had to pivot, just like our clients.
“We moved all of our training courses online and carried out client meetings, mentoring and networking by phone and video. Our grant evaluations, approvals, and payments processes were adapted to minimise any delay for business owners.”
The increased profile of the Local Enterprise Office – both through government messaging and new funding mechanisms has resulted in increased demand and a widening of the client base.
As a result, client engagement levels at LEO Offaly have jumped by 380 per cent this year, compared to 2019, as it continues to work with client Covid-hit companies across all sectors.
“The Covid-19 impact has varied considerably across different sectors, but, across the board, I’ve been really struck by the resilience of so many business owners,” Martin said.
“It has been heartening to see how different enterprises have been able to pivot and adapt. Mór Gin in Tullamore began producing hand sanitiser, for example, while Midland Sacks & Covers in Clara pivoted to produce PPE.”
Similarly, businesses in Offaly’s manufacturing, engineering, food and drink sectors have adapted their work processes, allowing them to continue trade safely through the pandemic, Martin said.
“The challenges facing each of these businesses has varied enormously between - and even within - sectors, and whether or not they operate domestically or internationally,” Martin said.
“LEO Offaly staff have been very busy supporting these clients through Covid-19 in line with their individual business needs.
“We have also been encouraging business owners to prepare for Brexit, while also helping them to embrace lean and green efficiencies, improve management and financial capabilities, diversify and explore new markets.”
“The pressure on business owners to manage all of these issues, while in the middle of a global pandemic, has been enormous.”
In addition to supporting businesses and promoting entrepreneurship, LEO Offaly is working to develop key sectoral strengths and priority areas. These include Green Energy & Technology, Food & Drink, Engineering and Manufacturing, Science and Big Data, Remote Working, Tourism and Creative Industries.
Offaly’s strong heritage in energy production and infrastructure is contributing to a growing number of businesses establishing large scale green energy projects in Offaly.
Rhode Green Energy Park has a number of serviced sites to accommodate co-locating energy projects.
Offaly County Council is also looking to the future with educational initiatives designed to nurture the skills needed to maintain the county’s position as a hub for innovative manufactures like R&R Projects, Glenwood, Grant Engineering, Inland and Coastal, Romaquip and Applied Concepts.
“Innovation 2020, Ireland’s strategy for research, development, science and technology, highlights the critical importance of excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) education in ensuring the continuous development of a pipeline of talent,” Orla Martin said.
In response, the Council has partnered with Cork Institute of Technology to developed Vex IQ, a primary school competition that uses robotics to teach pupils about STEM fundamentals in a fun, engaging, and hands-on way.
“This initiative connects students and companies who use robotics in their business. It builds on Offaly’s strong heritage in science and engineering and it gives students the skills they need for an exciting future,” said Orla Martin, Head of Enterprise with the Local Enterprise Office within Offaly County Council.
Ray Bell, Head of IT at Offaly County Council, said VEX Robotics was just one of a number of initiatives Offaly County Council was supporting to drive STEM education, research and jobs.
“Birr Castle is home to I-LOFAR, the new radio telescope. The Irish station is part of a €150 million European project and it puts Offaly at the forefront of science and discovery,” Bell said.
“In addition, Birr Castle Gardens and Science Centre provides STEM training to school children and visitors, while SFI-funded space camps are conducted in the new I-LOFAR Education Centre and on an outreach basis to teachers and school children in the Midlands region.”
Offaly County Council through its work with Offaly Innovation & Design Centre and Enterprise Ireland co-funded stream BIRR, which utilises I-LOFAR’s big data capacity to provide unique opportunities to both researchers and businesses.
Grand Canal Greenway
In 2016, Offaly County Council unveiled “Connecting People – Connecting Places”, and its plans to build a greenway along the towpath route of the Grand Canal from Edenderry in the east to Shannon Harbour in the west.
The Grand Canal Greenway will make close to 100km of safe walking and cycling greenway available to locals and visitors alike.
Part of a larger cross-council project between Offaly County Council and its counterparts in South Dublin and Kildare, in partnership with Waterways Ireland, the wider project will run from the Grand Canal Dock in Dublin all the way to the River Shannon in Offaly.
Work has already been completed along several sections of the route.
“We took a leap of faith in 2016, spending €170,000 of our own funds to get the greenway started,” Anna Marie Delaney, Chief Executive of Offaly County Council, said.
“Since then, we’ve committed a further €530,000 in council funding to the project and we’ve secured a €7 million in national funding, supported by the National Greenway Strategy.
“Again, arising from Connecting People - Connecting Places, the ‘big picture’ plan is to deliver Midlands Cycling Destination - Offaly, which would see run to more than 300km of greenway right throughout Co. Offaly, set in an amazing landscape and passing through many lovely towns and villages.”
The 71 kilometres of Grand Canal Greenway will run through Offaly, forming the “spine” of the Midlands Cycling Destination.
“The wider ‘Destination’ product will link to other national-scale greenways, such as the Old Rail Trail, Dublin-to-Galway Greenway, Royal Canal Greenway, Barrow Blueway and the Shannon Blueway,” Delaney said.
“The short-term hope for 2021 is that the Grand Canal Greenway, from Daingean and Tullamore to Lough Boora Discovery Park, will be the ‘next big greenway’ on a national scale, just like the Great Western Greenway and Waterford Greenway before it.”