In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic as Ireland battles an unparalleled existential crisis, it is sometimes easy to forget that just 10 years ago the country was caught up in another global fire-storm, this time an economic one.
he Irish economy ground to a halt in mid 2008 following the twin disaster of the banking crash and the collapse of the country’s overheated building industry.
The damage was as devastating as it was fast and by mid 2010 the country and the county were in dire straits.
Hundreds of businesses had closed across Kerry and over 16,000 people had found themselves on the dole line, up from just 6,000 two years before. Tralee, in particular, had been ravaged and without the fall-back of tourism, the county capital was haemorrhaging jobs.
People were, very understandably, desperate for a solution and one was about to arrive from a most unusual source.
The beginnings of the Global Pharmaceutical Centre of Excellence (GPCE) project were low key. In late June 2010 a small company – GPCE Ltd – was set up and a few weeks later, on July 19, a website appeared.
While light on detail – and mainly filled with stock images and generic graphics – the site made an astonishing claim.
The company proposed building a €4.7 billion pharmaceutical research facility that would house over 40 multinational companies and create up to 5,000 jobs.
The GPCE would take the lead on global research into everything from the common cold to AIDS and cancer and was to be the largest single place of employment in the country.
It was a breath-taking proposal and, if it came to pass, it would be the answer to Tralee, Kerry and Munster’s prayers.
Initially, it appeared that the people behind the project had hoped to keep their massively ambitious plans relatively quiet.
However, a plan so mind bogglingly huge was never going to stay under the radar. Within hours of the website appearing, news of the plan was spreading like wildfire, first on social media and quickly on the streets of Tralee.
It was hardly surprising that the plan was met with considerable scepticism but it soon became apparent that while the proposal was certainly bizarre it was genuine.
The Kerryman quickly learned that the main movers behind the plan were involved with Cork based generic medicine supply and delivery firm Pharmadel.
Pharmadel was headed up by businessman Tom Barry and its main Kerry connection was Rory Doyle, a Fenit native, who was Pharmadel’s Vice President.
The firm may have been little known but it had some significant backers. These included the former Fine Gael leader, and then Anglo Irish Bank director, Alan Dukes – whose father hailed from Tralee – and the renowned heart surgeon Dr Maurice Neligan, who also had strong links to Kerry with a home in Dooks.
Several other firms had also given the project their backing, among them Malachy Walsh and Partners engineers; Peevers Slye Cotter accountants and architects Michael Williams and Associates.
As interest in the plan escalated – it didn’t so much snowball as avalanche – politicians soon got involved. Then Enterprise Minister Batt O’Keeffe signalled his general approval and, not long after, Taoiseach Brian Cowen had given his full backing to the project pledging that the Government would do all it could to advance it.
“GPCE and its promoters Pharmadel can rely on the supportive engagement of the state enterprise agencies in their endeavours to make the project a reality and to see the benefits accrue to Ireland and beyond into the global economy,” the Taoiseach said in a letter to the GPCE company and its backers..
“When detailed proposals for the project are submitted, I want to assure you that as head of government, the expertise of our state enterprise agencies will be at your disposal to assist and support you further to bring this ambitious project to fruition,” Mr Cowen added.
State bodies like the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and Shannon Development were soon brought on board and, within a few months, the campaign to bring ‘big pharma’ to Tralee was in full swing.
One of the leading backers of the bid was the ‘Kerry4GPCE’ group, a collection of local business people who came together and launched a county wide campaign in support of the stunning proposal.
By the end of 2010, GPCE fever had well and truly gripped Tralee and the town was smothered in GPCE posters and flags and the project’s main backers had achieved near celebrity status in the town and county.
Fêted wherever they went, things were going well for Mr Doyle and Mr Barry and Tralee’s unlikely GPCE dream looked as though it might just come true.
The high point for the project came in March of 2011 when the GPCE’s backers and its proposed board were honoured by Kerry County Council during a two day trip to Tralee.
With Kerry County Council handing over its chambers and the visitors – from several leading international pharmaceutical firms – treated to a tour of Tralee complete with a garda escort and outriders, the event, at times, resembled a fully fledged visit by a foreign monarch.
During the visit – at a high profile meeting in the council chamber – three of the visiting firms announced the creation of 300 initial jobs. These would be the first GPCE jobs and would mark the official start of the project.
They would never actually materialise.
In truth, the two day visit in early 2011 actually revealed many major problems with the project.
These generated little discussion at the time but, in hindsight, it was clear the project had little chance of proceeding, at least as was originally planned.
The GPCE company were still seeking funding for the €4.7 billion project and negotiations with three sovereign funds, including one in Saudi Arabia, were a long way from concluding.
Furthermore, no application had been made for planning permission.
Having failed to reach an agreement with Shannon Development – the plans to build the GPCE on a site adjacent to Kerry Technology Park had been quietly shelved.
The GPCE plan had shrunk rapidly and instead of an enormous campus that would house nearly 5,000 workers, the plan became a proposal to house 200 to 300 workers in various vacant Tralee factories.
For a time the Kingdom faced competition from north of the border when the city of Derry tried to poach the GPCE from under Tralee’s nose.
However, Derry’s interest in the project, such as it was and soon the bid to bring the GPCE to Northern Ireland had petered out
With little sign of any real progress being made, interest soon waned in Tralee too.
The posters and flags faded and fell as it became more and more apparent that the GPCE project was doomed to fail.
Talk of the 300 jobs “announced” in March 2011 ended and the GPCE was soon all but forgotten, especially by the many politicians who had been so quick to embrace it.
In the end the GPCE died a quiet and unspectacular death.
In September 2011 – just six months after the GPCE’s backers were greeted with flags and fanfares – the CEO Designate of the GPCE project Rory Doyle resigned from the position on health grounds.
Then, a little under a year later in July 2012, Pharmadel, the main corporate backers of the GPCE plan, collapsed.
The Cork firm was placed into liquidation with reported debts of close to €1 million.
Finally on January 27, 2013 GPCE Ltd, the company set up to run the project, was strike-off listed by the Companies Registration Office, bringing the grand plans for the multi billion Euro facility to a modest end.
Amid an historic depression, Tralee had dared to dream, unfortunately not even part of that dream would ever be realised.
The astonishing scale of GPCE’s Tralee plans
There were many reasons to be sceptical of the GPCE’s prospects of success but arguably the greatest reason for caution was the sheer scale of what was being suggested.
However, while many of those connected with the project privately expressed major doubts about the GPCE company’s extraordinarily ambitious plans, there was a general unwillingness to voice those reservations publicly.
Behind the scenes though, several senior figures were advocating a more measured approach, citing the vast size of the GPCE campus proposal and the enormous pressure it would place on Tralee’s already strained resources and infrastructure.
Put simply, while a €4.7 billion pharma centre complex and 5,000 new jobs would be very welcome, would Tralee have been able to cope with the influx?
Some basic figures about the plan help put this in context.
If it had been successful, the GPCE would have increased the population of Tralee and its surrounding areas by an enormous 22 per cent.
This, in turn, would have had massive implications for Kerry County Council’s plans for the Tralee area. The entire Tralee Development Plan to 2020 would have had to be scrapped and started from scratch.
According to the 2020 development plan, 779 extra houses would have been needed in Tralee by 2016, if the GPCE plan went ahead that would immediately have increased to 925 houses with huge knock-on effects for every single Council service.
Then there was the campus itself. Aside from the provision of adequate power, water and waste service, the issue of parking alone was set to be a massive headache.
At the time, Kerry County Council said it was most likely the proposed centre would be classified, for planning purposes, as a mixture of office and warehouse space.
Thus the developers would need to provide two or three parking spaces per 100 square meters of floor space. That’s an easy proposition for a typical development but in the case of a 1.2 million square foot facility it’s a different matter.
With the average parking space measuring of 150 square feet the GPCE campus would have had to provide a car park, of between 8 and 12 acres in size to house some 3,345 cars.
Given that the site earmarked for the vast facility – adjacent to Kerry Technology Park – measured just 30 acres providing anywhere near enough parking was going to be something of a conundrum for the complex’s designers.
The plan to build Ireland’s largest single workplace in Tralee would have placed the county capital on the international economic map but, looking back, it’s hard to see how a town of Tralee’s relatively modest scale could have accommodated it.