Ennis and Co. Clare are famous for many things. Some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country, some of the world’s best fiddlers, being home to the airport that played a vital role as a hub for early transatlantic aviation, and of course producing a generation of the finest hurlers in the country.
With all of this to its credit, it is not surprising that Ennis is not readily identified with the information revolution. But this perception has been changing radically over the past five months or so. Ever since Telecom Éireann announced its Information Age Town project, Ennis has been gearing up to insure that it takes the bouquets in this highly prestigious national competition, which will net the winning town some £15 million in information technology infrastructure investment.
"Ennis already enjoys considerable natural advantages in terms of information technology, awareness, usage and infrastructure. It is located in the heart of the Midwest, is a centre point for many information technology and information society actions and initiatives and it draws from the technology axis of Limerick and Galway. The Midwest region is already home to many of Ireland’s leading technology industries - including AST and Dell Computer," says Tom Dowling, assistant county manager with responsibility for Ennis.
The town is also on the national telecommunications ‘frame relay’ system around Ireland and has a fully digitised telephone exchange. Telecom Éireann has worked closely with Clare County Council to maximise the level of ISDN connectivity deployed throughout the county and the town. Because that ISDN infrastructure is already in place, capital expenditure by Telecom in Ennis would not be as great as that required elsewhere.
Furthermore, Ennis enjoy a high level of involvement in EU initiatives through SHIP, coordinated under the auspices of Shannon Development, COMBAT (Corporate Marketing to overcome Barriers facing disabled Teleworkers) and MITRE (Market Implementation of Teleworking in Urban and Rural areas).
"While not having a regional technical college or university of its own, Ennis enjoys ease of access to the resources of the universities and regional technical colleges in Limerick and Galway. The locally-trained, highly-skilled workforce from these institutions is critical to the economic development of Ennis and the ability of the region to retain talent and sustain economic growth on a long term basis," explains Tommy Brennan, Chairman of the Ennis Urban District Council.
Ennis is also a young town. Some 41 per cent of its 15,373 inhabitants are under the age of 24. A further 27 per cent are aged between 25 and 44. Furthermore, there are 5,000 first and second level students in the town.
This translates almost directly into an extremely high level of computer usage. A recent survey showed that 48.7 per cent of student homes had computers, of which 18.9 per cent had internet connections and a further 7.6 per cent had e-mail addresses.
Armed with these considerable advantages, the town set out to put together a set of proposals which would convince the judges of the Information Age Town sponsorship award of its suitability for winning the award.
It was decided to put a task force in place to drive the project forward and develop its proposals. That task force is a product of the co-operation between the public, private and voluntary sectors which characterises the Ennis proposals. The 15 member group is chaired by T J Waters, who is head of employee relations at Roche Ireland Ltd and representing Ennis Chamber of Commerce.
The local authorities are represented by Tom Dowling, assistant county manager and chairman of Ennis Civic Trust. Other members of the task force include solicitor Pamela Wall; Tomas Ryan, town clerk with Ennis Urban District Council and board member of the community-based development company, Ennis West Partners; Margaret Cooney, principal of the Holy Family School in Ennis; accountant Noel Connellan; John Casey, manufacturing director of Vitalograph Ireland; Andy Tierney, owner of Tierney Office Automation; John Quinlivan, regional development manager, Co. Clare Shannon Development.
Triona McInerney, project co-ordinator, Ennis Chamber of Commerce; Pat Quinn, a farmer; Josephine Cotter-Coughlan, administrative officer with Ennis Urban District Council; media consultant Caimin Jones; UDC member Michael Guilfoyle; and Gerry Barry, crime prevention officer with the Garda Siochana make-up the final list of members.
The task force retained the services of Dublin consultancy firm Farrell Grant Sparks to assist in the preparation of a submission, which was formally presented to Telecom Eireann. Details of this submission and benefits for Ennis and Telecom Eireann were formally presented to an assessment panel on September 9. The presentation was exceptional both in its form and content. It took place in front of an audience of 200 people, was transmitted live on Clare FM local radio and - appropriately - was also transmitted live on the internet.
At the heart of the Ennis proposal is a strategic plan involving five flagship pillars. These pillars or projects involve: