Communities united in survival

There is life outside the ever-growing conurbations, but locals must share and stand together, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

Communities united in survival

Chambers Ireland has produced a report outlining a series of proposals aimed at reviving the country’s town centres, many of which have been laid waste by a combination of poor planning, overdevelopment, the recession, local taxes and charges.

Across these islands, an American-style ‘hollowing out’ of smaller urban centres has been taking place, with the advent of retail parks on the outskirts and the growing predominance of larger towns and cities, not to mention the growing threat from online businesses.

In particular, the report contains a call for a reduction in the rates for businesses in town centres.

In Northern Ireland, a small business relief scheme — funded by a controversial levy on large retail outlets — was introduced by the NI Executive at the end of 2011. Under the scheme, £5m (€6.3m)was raised from the owners of 76 properties at a cost of £66,000 per store in the fiscal year 2012/ 2013.

At the same time, around £6m was awarded to 8,300 smaller businesses, giving an average award of £740 to be set against the firm’s commercial rates bill.

Under the scheme, a 50% relief on rates is also on offer to businesses occupying premises which have been empty for a long period. The scheme is due to end next year. It is not clear whether it will be extended.

Interestingly, Limerick — a city harder hit than most during the economic crisis — has also launched a rates rebate scheme, under which new businesses can draw down a rebate of up to 50% in the first year of operation, with a reduction of 25% on offer for the second year.

The promoters of such schemes have, of course, to be aware of so called ‘deadweight effects’. The city authorities must ensure that viable existing businesses are not undermined in the process. Ideally, funding should be aimed at jump-starting new businesses which will offer goods and services that have not been available in the town.

Limerick has been something of a negative role model, with rival local authorities encouraging the development of shopping centres on the periphery in the hunt for additional commercial rates income. Recent reforms appear to be resulting in much greater focus.

The Greater Dublin area has also suffered from the phenomenon of shopping mall sprawl. The massive Dundrum Town Centre has cast its shadow right across to Dublin bay on the southside. Many premises in Dun Laoghaire, several miles away, now lie empty, or are occupied by charity shops.

Dun Laoghaire has also earned a bad name for the zeal in which its parking police go about their business. In the process, life has been drained from the centre, undermining the very real efforts of the authorities to upgrade the town.

Some small business owners have been treated with a degree of dismissiveness, if not arrogance by shopping centre promoters who have concentrated their efforts on attracting the large multiples, chains and purveyors of international brands which count for so much in the eyes of the youthful target audience.

As a result, something very real has been lost. The contrast with great cities such as Paris is stark.

While the French economy is certainly struggling, longtime Parisian enterprises have benefited from a form of rent control that favours family businesses. As a result, the city’s retail landscape is much more varied, with less control exerted by global chains. The ability of local councils in Ireland to control and harness development activity has, itself, been hobbled as a result of a series of court decisions.

These have favoured property developers, leaving local authorities with the choice of paying out hefty compensation or allowing developments which contribute to the ongoing problem of sprawl and saturation.

However, some urban areas have been reinventing themselves with degrees of success. The great success story of the past few decades has been Kinsale, which owes its revival in part to the efforts of a small group of local people.

But at local level, many small towns are attempting a fight-back. An interesting case in point is the Mayo town of Ballyhaunis. The local Chamber was set up back in 1980. It has established a subsidiary known as BRCIE, focusing on enterprise and innovation. In 2003, it opened a small enterprise centre in a vacant unit and later opened a 22,000 square foot unit to accommodate new business.

As the chamber president, John Dillon Leitch observes, the town faces some serious challenges.

“Bigger towns, such as Castlebar, have been hoovering the economy.”

Another blow came with the recent closure of the local courthouse, last December, draining business from the town. When Tesco and Aldi opened in nearby Claremorris, more business was lost via the N17 road. In response, Ballyhaunis has set up a traders’ association. Ballyhaunis has real strengths — including a solid manufacturing base in the form of Dawn Meats, the Western Brand Group, and a number of light engineering firms.

A new farmer’s market opened in April beside the empty courthouse. With 10 businesses in operation, it has got off to a good start. Eleven units at the Enterprise Centre are now occupied and work is under way on a new 3,000sq foot centre.

Ann Cunnane, the Chamber CEO, points to other positive developments in the town including the establishment of the Connacht GAA’s Centre of Excellence. Knock Airport is about 20 minutes away.

The new traders’ association “will let people know we are still there,” she said.

David Minton heads up Mayo County Council’s enterprise and investment unit. He has been meeting up with representatives from each county town with the aim of promoting Mayo as a whole.

Visitors are more likely to be attracted to areas that promote themselves as a region rather than by means of a series of disconnected promotional pitches.

The county has begun to benefit big time from the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ for walkers and cyclists. Its extension should jump-start further entrepreneurial activity.

The unveiling of new broadband infrastructure should also assist local businesses in turning the tide.

A great recent paradox has been the way the spread of technology that allows people to work remotely from their own bedroom has helped foster the concentration of so much activity in mega cities.

Local towns cannot, on their own, do much about such global trends beyond stating a case for a fair allocation of national resources.

Their big pitch should be around the idea that they already have a strong social infrastructure in place, while local officials and representatives must also ensure that resources are allocated.

Communities that are slow to grasp this basic lesson could find themselves condemned to irrelevance.

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