Ideas to bring life back to hollowed-out rural towns

Re-energising and revitalising rural towns and villages have been common themes in this column over the past 10 years, writes Joe Gill.

Devising policies and initiatives that can bring employment and life to towns hollowed out by emigration, big-box and out-of-town supermarkets, fewer farmers and the vortex created by Dublin is a task worthy of much debate.

We have yet to see the ongoing recovery in the Irish economy translate into vibrancy in smaller towns.

But the small towns provide a solution to not only the housing crisis but also the space needed by fast-growing employers who want Ireland to be at the heart of their European head office strategies.

The conundrum involves the cost of living in Dublin and the congestion associated with an overstretched capital existing alongside many rural communities who are desperate for an influx of employed families.

How do we solve this challenge?

There are a variety of issues that are major obstacles in the way of rapidly and fundamentally changing the status quo.

Fixing each of these would go a long way in turning around the terrible state of unused retail stores that pepper the main streets of so many towns and villages around the Irish countryside.

Assuming you had presidential authority what are the four initiatives that could change everything? Here are a few ideas.

Twinning individual towns with large and ambitious technology companies could deliver significant jobs and investment.

We know large companies are struggling to attract and retain skilled staff as rents surge despite high employment levels across the US, UK and Ireland.

Imagine a single town striking a deal with a global technology company to devise a plan that incorporates schooling, housing, and commercial properties that support a jobs announcement which brings an important part of a company’s business to an individual town.

Building a more aggressive network of small to mid-sized shared business offices equipped with high powered broadband could act as a magnet for mobile investment.

The Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen is a good example of a resource that could be replicated in many towns if given the support of local councils.

Skibereen's Ludgate Hub
Skibereen's Ludgate Hub

Competitively-priced desk and office space attached to such hubs would allow budding entrepreneurs to grow their on line businesses from areas outside Dublin.

Reforming the main street of towns and villages is a key challenge.

Nothing is more of a turn-off for investors than a main street littered with empty shop fronts. Traditional retail is dying in big cities too so changes to the way councils charge rates and encourage investment have to be explored.

In 20 years time, the streets of small towns have to be full of residents or businesses fit for purpose.

The latter will probably be online businesses and cafes and restaurants that thrive courtesy of more residents, successful small enterprise and appropriate rates.

State agencies should promote the opportunities offered by rural towns for living and working as part of the plan to pursue investors who are open-minded about location.

The zeitgeist among young graduates and employees is about living a life that attaches a premium to leisure, satisfying work and greater environmental and food awareness.

Any small town that sits in the middle of the Irish countryside can meet all these demands.

Yet, we struggle to promote those advantages, apart from in the promotions for the tourism industry.

As Ireland rides the wave of economic recovery at a national level, the benefits remain skewed towards the centre of Dublin.

Unless radical initiatives are implemented this trend will continue.

Rural Ireland and its many urban centres deserve much better leadership to address this mismatch.

Joe Gill is director of origination and corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.

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