19 Jan Interview with Joan Martin, CEO of Louth County Council, Ireland
BF: What are the main challenges facing the region today and what will your strategic priorities be going into 2023?
Joan Martin: The biggest challenge facing Louth, Ireland is to fully capitalize on its prime economic development location. We’re fortunate to be situated midway on the corridor between Dublin and Belfast and we benefit from that every day of the week. We punch well above our weight in attracting foreign direct investment into the county, but we’re always striving to do better. That’s why Louth has joined forces with all eight councils from Belfast to Dublin, working together to develop the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor into an internationally recognized powerhouse of economic development. This will provide us with added value and help us take that extra step forward. Location is always a key consideration for us, and we’re focused on driving that location advantage by ensuring all the necessary infrastructure is in place to maximize the benefits.
BF: How does the symbolism of President Biden’s visit to Ireland tie into the strong relations between the two countries and between Ireland and the current U.S. administration?
Joan Martin: Irish-American relationships are hugely important at both the national and local levels, encompassing areas such as economic development and tourism. During his visit to Dundalk, President Biden mentioned how his great-great-grandfather would’ve been shocked that, while he himself had to leave Ireland, his great-great-grandson could return as the President of the United States. This shows what can be achieved from humble beginnings. We hope that this visit will further strengthen relations between Ireland and America and potentially boost tourism in Louth. The President visited some lovely spots, including Carlingford Castle, which was the last sight his ancestors would’ve seen when leaving Ireland, and the delightful Windsor Bar in Dundalk that has already been featured in international newspapers. We’re incredibly proud and honored that he visited us again and we hope he’ll return in the future.
BF: What are some of the expected outcomes, in a business and relational sense, of this reunion?
Joan Martin: It once again puts Ireland in the spotlight, which is positive for us in Louth. Our priority is to make sure that Ireland is the first choice for those considering investing or expanding overseas. President Biden, having visited Louth, will, we hope, encourage many to look at Louth; and once they look, we know they’ll be hooked. We have so much going for us because we’re in a prime location. We have a huge talent pool, well-developed infrastructure, and easy access to Dublin, Belfast, airports, and ports. We hope that this visit will put a spotlight on our small county, which may be the smallest county in Ireland, but that certainly doesn’t hold us back.
BF: What specific steps has the council taken to promote growth in the region in the past two years, and how has it impacted the region’s economy and job market. What will be your next steps?
Joan Martin: When we were writing the county development plan, the biggest factor that influenced our approach was the fact that Dundalk and Drogheda are the two largest towns in Ireland outside of the cities, with both having populations over 40,000. While this may sound small to an American, it’s considered very substantial for Irish towns. It’s unique to have two towns of this size in one very small county and it’s this aspect which is the key driver in our plan. We’re seeking to achieve substantial population growth in both Dundalk and Drogheda in order for them to act as economic drivers for the county and the region. For example, one current project in Drogheda, in collaboration with a group of housing developers, is a road construction project with a budget of more than €20 million to open up housing lands to allow about 5,000 houses to be developed over the next few years in North Drogheda. This is just one of the initiatives aimed at facilitating the growth of new neighborhoods and housing to support the expansion of both towns and promote the local and regional economy. These and other exciting initiatives are currently underway.
BF: What would you highlight as key industries and sectors currently driving the local economy in Louth County?
Joan Martin: We have shifted from being a manufacturing-based economy when I was growing up to now focusing on areas such as services, financial services, pharma, and biopharma. We have completely transformed our economic landscape and recently attracted major companies like WuXi Biologics, who are undertaking a massive development in Dundalk. They already employ over 600 people and are projected to employ over a thousand when they’re fully operational. This represents a tremendous boost to our local industry. Dundalk was their first plant outside of China and they chose it primarily because of its location, including access to the airport for exporting purposes. The location has always been a key factor in our economic development strategy, and we continue to build on this advantage.
BF: How does tourism contribute to the local economy of Louth County, and how is the region working to attract both domestic and international visitors?
Joan Martin: We partner with Meath County Council, our neighboring county, in marketing the Boyne Valley and the greater area, which boasts some of the greatest prehistoric sites, dating from 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, as well as modern facilities and attractions for tourists. In our own county, we developed the SeaLouth project that focuses on the coast and seafood. It’s a culinary journey along the coast where visitors can sample our seafood, including the famous oysters from Carlingford Lough, recently visited by President Biden. This initiative involves local restaurants and food producers. Visitors get a SeaLouth Passport and embark on their culinary journey, getting their passport stamped along the way. It’s a wonderful product that has garnered significant national and international attention. We’re also part of Ireland’s Ancient East, which is marketed internationally by Tourism Ireland. We have various layers and levels of tourism marketing, as you can see. We’re currently funded by the Shared Island Fund to collaborate with our counterparts across the border in Northern Ireland, in Newry, Mourne, and Down, to study the potential of becoming a center of excellence for outdoor recreation and adventure. We’re actively working on that and hope to have a feasibility report in the next few months.
BF: How does Louth County Council support economic growth and development by working with investors and businesses, and what specific opportunities are available for U.S. investors interested in investing in the region?
We work closely with the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), which is the state agency responsible for assisting businesses considering investment or expansion in Ireland. We have a dedicated team headed by me that works with the IDA, offering a one-stop shop for all principal services. Our role is to facilitate and help in any way we can, whether it’s through planning applications, infrastructure, or other needs. We also work through our development plan to identify and zone land. In fact, the IDA has a major new business park in Dundalk that was zoned by us in our latest development plan. We offer preferential rates for IDA clients with our development levies, which are fees that need to be paid when developing new sites, housing, factories, and so on. Applicants may receive a big reduction if they’re supported by the IDA or Enterprise Ireland.
BF: What specific sustainability initiatives has Louth County Council implemented and how is the council working to promote sustainability and environmental protection in the region?
Joan Martin: We are one of the leading councils in the country in terms of energy reduction. Since the baseline year of 2018, we’ve reduced our energy usage by 48%, which is well on track to meet the government target of 51% by 2030. Our staff works diligently both in-house and externally every day to push for energy reduction. While our initial focus was primarily on energy reduction, we’ve now expanded to wider climate action areas, working with industries and communities to reduce carbon footprint, promote renewable energy sources such as solar or wind, and engage in climate action efforts across all areas. Ireland has set ambitious national targets for climate action and our primary focus is to deliver on those targets. However, effective climate action requires a collective effort from everyone, including individuals, communities, and companies. Our focus in the years ahead will be to work closely with these actors just as we’ve done in the past for energy reduction, but now with a broader whole climate action approach. We have a dedicated team in place to drive this critical agenda, which is likely to be an ongoing priority for many years to come.
BF: Do you have a final message to the readers of USA Today about choosing Ireland as their next business and investment destination?
Joan Martin: Ireland is clearly a major gateway to the European Union and is now the only EU country where English is the everyday spoken language. Ireland offers the investor, inter alia, a highly educated, mobile and flexible workforce. County Louth is particularly well situated, as I’ve already outlined, and we are truly a great place to do business, to live and to play. As we said to President Biden recently: “Céad Míle Fáilte go Contae Lú” — “A Hundred Thousand Welcomes to County Louth.”