ONCE in every generation a place gets an opportunity to define itself, to take its future into its own hands and shape, mould and grow an important space in the way it needs.
The closure of the brewery in the city has provided Kilkenny with an opportunity on a scale not seen since the Butler family handed over the Castle to the State.
The brewery is over 14 acres in size and dominates the city. Its rejuvenation, removal of the huge storage vessels, the rehabilitation of the old buildings and maintenance of the red brick brewery buildings and Cellar Bar are within the grasp of the city.
However, it requires great political and civic leadership to ensure that the brewery site is not wasted as a living quarter or a shopping centre type development.
A riverside walk stretching the entire length of the city; the re-emergence of one of our most important historical, architectural and medieval sites (St Francis Abbey) and the maintenance of a brewing tradition while using the site as a new type of park, with mixed leisure, commercial and arts-based activities linked in with a dedicated Smithwicks museum and brewery tour.
By keeping it out of private ownership, it may be possible with the generosity of Diageo to turn a disaster for the city into a success.
That will come as little comfort to the 44 people who will lose their jobs in 2013 when the brewery closes but when you consider that less than 60 years ago it employed almost 400 people, you can see how much it has declined.
It is important that we maintain the 302 years of brewing there by re-inventing the area and showing what can be achieved by good forward planning and a combined strategy.
The Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan and the other Oireachtas members along with city and county councils should come together and take over the rejuvenation of the site for the benefit of the city in the same way as Butler House and the Crescent workshops, opposite Kilkenny Castle, were saved in the 1980s by a consortium led by former city and county manager, Paddy Donnelly. The Kilkenny Civic Trust would be a good starting point to show what can be done.
A mixture of commercial and non-commercial enterprises overseen by a group of people with the best interests of the city at heart would be the best option.
According to Paul Smithwick, a direct descendant of the family who owned the brewery, Diageo are anxious to do the right thing by the people and are anxious to give something back to the community.
The decommissioning of the site is expected to cost them at least €2 million and Diageo’s plans in 2008 for a housing development to cash in on the building boom can now be seen for what it was, a disaster.
Minister Hogan has already sought a meeting with top Diageo management and he will be emphasising the importance of keeping a presence in the city while also providing the city with a proper legacy. “We need a good, strong commercial aspect to this if it is to be a success and we must ensure that anything down there can sustain itself,” he said.
There is now a chance to provide employment for hundreds of local people there.
In this weeks Kilkenny People, Carol Cantwell provides a glimpse of what might be achieved with the right kind of back-up and political leadership. Her vision for an open cultural quarter linking the city is superb and should form the basis of where we want to go.
Diageo has done well from Kilkenny and the fact remains that it is closing a brewery that is making a substantial profit every year.
If Diageo is serious it will row in behind the plans of people like Minister Hogan, Paul Smithwick and others to ensure that we are left with a viable alternative to the brewery.
The old and new can be forged together to create a new quarter to the city linking Bateman Quay and the main shopping area.
A river path to the Canal Walk and in the other direction under Greensbridge to the new linear walk by Riverside Drive that goes all the way to the Weir and the swimming area would be a wonderful amenity for the area.
A museum, chronicling the brewery, linked in with a brewery tour and with modern inter-active innovations to make the visit of tourists more pleasurable and rich, should be one of the goals.
The existing brewery tour as Tess Felder reported last summer is a joy and this can be married into any new plan.
The micro-brewery would be, if Paul Smithwick has his way, be run by Diageo in a way not unlike the Guinness Hops Store, which is one of the most successful tourist attractions in Dublin.
Parking has been a huge problem in the Parliament Street-Irishtown-Dean Street-Vicar Street-Greensbridge area of the city and a coach-car park there would make it easier for people to shop and spend leisure time in the existing outlets and to visit the theatre and eat in the restaurants or drink in the pubs.
It would help eliminate the conspicuous coach parking on the Castle Road and with the arrival of the new bridge in five years’ time opens up the area like never before.
The advertisement for Kilkenny Ale created in the brewery and made there had the catch line Carpe Diem (seize the day) and that phrase takes on a new resonance.
We should now move to grasp the opportunity. But without the bravery of our public figures it will not happen.
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