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Revitalization specialist shares experience in British port city transformation
Posted 06/13/2019 03:17PM

By Lauren McDonald Jun 7,2019

Martin O'Hara, right, sits down for an on-stage interview with Bert Roughton, left, former senior managing editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Their discussion followed a talk O'Hara gave at the College of Coastal Georgia on Thursday about his experience in port city revitalization.

Martin O'Hara does not call himself an expert. Nonetheless, he has a great deal of experience in port city revitalization.

O'Hara, who worked for more than 20 years in the United Kingdom helping restore, renovate and reuse dilapidated facilities, shared his experiences Thursday evening at the College of Coastal Georgia Foundation's second installment of the 2019 Distinguished Speaker series.

"I'm not an authority," said O'Hara, who is a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and a regional judge for its annual property awards program. "What I am is someone with a fair degree of experience — over 20-odd years."

O'Hara's presentation focused on his work in the British port city of Ipswich, whose revitalization over the past 20 years bears many resemblances to what could happen in Brunswick.

But every city has to find its own unique identity in order to accomplish its own transformation, said O'Hara, who has owned a home in the Golden Isles for 11 years and spends about six months here annually.

When his work began in Ipswich in 1997, those involved in the port city's revitalization effort mostly agreed on what needed to be done. They did not let their disagreements prevent the work from moving forward, O'Hara said.

"About 75 percent of what we wanted, we all wanted. About 25 percent of it, we disagreed on, and probably about 10 percent of that we still disagree on," he said. "But we decided to work toward common goals, to put the differences aside and to achieve the 75 percent."

He emphasized compromise and collaboration as crucial elements of success. In Ipswich, his company and its partners identified key areas where they could bring about progress and got the ball rolling on those initiatives.

"Compromise is not a failure," O'Hara said. "To achieve things sometimes, you just have to compromise. You get the best of what you can. We agreed priorities, and we agreed to take achievable early steps, because that gave the people of Ipswich credibility and confidence that we would do even more."

People and pride in the community play key roles as well, he said.

"I believe you have to talk to the residents early," he said. "You have to be real. You have to ask them what they want and then really listen to the answer."

Certain people in the community are easy to reach and receive feedback from. Others, though, are more difficult to engage with, he said, and their input matters too.

"The unmarried father, the hardworking family, the unemployed are much harder to get to," O'Hara said. "And so you have to go to them. Don't call a meeting at 10 o'clock on a Tuesday at the Brunswick library. Go on a Sunday afternoon to one of their schools in their community."

The local college in Ipswich also became involved in the revitalization process, he said, and eventually moved into a space on the port's waterfront.

"Students tend to spend rather than save," O'Hara said. "They will support cafes, bars, restaurants. They give life to a place."

Ipswich also had a vibrant artistic community that played a key role.

"We integrated existing initiatives," O'Hara said. "There were things already happening in Ipswich, as there are in Brunswick."

O'Hara's company's work in Ipswich transformed a struggling port into the United Kingdom's biggest grain export port. Trade at the port increased by 50 percent, and employment increased by 45 percent.

Change alters people's lives, O'Hara said. And Brunswick has the potential for great change.

"You're just off the I-95 and U.S. (Hwy.) 17," he said. "That means a hell of a lot of people go past your door."

Plans and investments are already in place, he said, and many assets exist, including the old town historic district, the waterfront and the artistic scene.

Brunswick is an integral part of the Golden Isles, he said, and visitors to the area should spend a week here, visiting St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and Brunswick separately.

"Brunswick does have the potential to offer something alternative and unique to the Golden Isles experience," O'Hara said.

Republished with permission of The Brunswick News. Originally published online at The Brunswick News.

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