Just three words: PRETTY POLLY SOLD. The bold, capitalised headline screaming from the front page lead story, 30 years ago today, sent shock waves reverberating not alone throughout Killarney but in every corner of the county, given the importance of the hosiery plant to the Kerry economy.
It was revealed that the factory and its parent company in Britain had been offloaded in a multi-million dollar deal – believed to have been worth 110 million Irish punts – with a US headquartered firm.
Worried trade union bosses were demanding urgent meetings with company management in a bid to ensure employment levels were maintained in the Upper Park Road plant which once provided secure jobs for in excess of 1,000 people.
At the time of the sale in August 1991, 450 people were still employed making and packing ladies tights.
The new owner was the Sara Lee Corporation, a Chicago-based consumer goods and garments company, with an estimated annual turnover of eleven thousand million dollars.
Although there was real shock in Killarney, with concerns being voiced for the future, the then Chairman of the Pretty Polly Group, John Kirkland, described it as a “tremendous opportunity”.
So what has happened since?
The factory was upgraded with a £14 million investment approved by then Tanaiste, Mary Harney, in 1999 and there was a promise of 300 new jobs with an estimated value of €7 per annum to the Killarney economy.
By the time Sara Lee pulled down the barriers on the factory, in January 2005, there were just 92 people on the payroll with over 100 jobs having been axed three years earlier.
The company blamed its problems on over-production and a massive decline in the market for the seamless knitted products it specialised in.
They said production would be consolidated at its plant in Spain where operation costs were significantly lower and where there was a more interested market.
Medical products firm Beocare later created 50 jobs and operated from a section of the factory but the former building is now only fit for demolition with the sprawling 7.4-acre site completely vacant since 2009.
When the barriers finally came down, the site was passed on to Kerry County Council with a condition stressed by the former owners that future use of the property must be of benefit to the town and the people of Killarney.
Despite several false dawns, including suggestions that it would be suitable for a skating park, go-kart track, bowling alley or as an enterprise centre, for well over a decade no meaningful plan was devised to redevelop the 25,000sq ft building which is now boarded up and in decay.
A process inviting expressions of interest in the prime site was eventually initiated, under the direction of the Killarney Municipal District council that sits today, with a professional commercial and property services company engaged to supervise the project on behalf of the local authority.
Six expressions of interest led to two tender bids being received in February of 2020 but Covid-19 put paid to those plans and the future of the once bustling factory remains quite uncertain.
What is known, however, is that a section of the factory site is to be allocated for the development of new houses.
Council officials have said the prime site will be re-examined and that the council is very keen to develop it but the housing section of the local authority has plans for a portion of the former factory land. It hasn’t been confirmed if it will be the council itself or a housing body that will develop the new houses or how many units will be built.
Thirty years to the day that it was revealed that Pretty Polly had been sold, Killarney is still waiting on progress.