Monday 23 October 2017

Time for unit owners to put pressure on local politicians

Donal Buckley

WITH local elections less than 10 months away, now is the time for commercial property owners to seek to influence political parties and aspiring independent candidates in the development of clear policies for towns and cities which will help to revive the former busy shopping streets and help them meet the serious challenges presented by internet shopping and out of town shopping centres.

Property owners also need to get the new councillors' support for comprehensive plans to address the doughnut effect on towns and ensure that the councils are not dominated by councillors elected on angry platforms and who would have little sympathy for the way councils can help local businesses in protecting jobs.

Some existing councils have realised this and adopted measures such as reductions in commercial property rates for new businesses which create jobs in town centres. Other towns have welcomed artists to their streets in order to increase footfall for the surrounding shops.

However, as the local elections are likely to be dominated by candidates promising to reduce residential property tax, there is a serious risk that councils could be dominated by angry candidates seeking to pay for such reductions through higher rates on commercial properties.

Such moves could be fatal for those businesses which are barely surviving and, if further closures were to result, it could exacerbate the decline of traditional town centres.

While some candidates may well demand that vacant town centre buildings should be converted to social housing, such a simplified approach could also prove counter productive as the dominance of town centres by unemployed families would deter the more affluent shoppers and businesses from locating there.

Indeed one of the reasons for the decline in town centres has been the preference of middle-class family residents for suburbia.

On the other hand, the under 35s with no children appear to quite enjoy urban centre lifestyles as has been evident in city centres. So the challenge is for provincial towns to learn from the success of places like Dublin and Galway in attracting this key spending age group to work and live in town centres.

One of the key factors in sustaining a healthy footfall in Dublin's city centre streets during the downturn has been the continued proliferation of private colleges augmenting the large numbers of people studying and working in Trinity College and DIT. Galway City too has benefited from the proximity of its university to the city centre.

Unfortunately, since the 1970s, the new universities and institutes of technology were established in large campuses in suburbia and town centres lost out on the vibrancy which their young people could have brought to their town and city centres.

Furthermore their footfall would also benefit local employment, and would assist in repopulation and wealth creation and investment which would add momentum to the urban regeneration.

The Government has recognised that one way of creating jobs is to build more schools. But when it comes to identifying where such schools should be located perhaps it also needs to give greater priority to those town centre schools or looking at the option of converting town centre buildings to such schools.

In this way not alone would the jobs be created in construction and teaching but also in the spin-off for the local businesses surrounding those schools.

For instance, grind schools may be set up nearby while councils could identify ways to encourage surrounding property owners and investors to adapt adjacent vacant buildings for occupation by incubator business such as IT firms and others in knowledge industries as well as other service providers and makers of things.

Teachers have been known to test the waters for business ideas and incubator facilities near their schools will help to encourage such entrepreneurial activity and in turn this will help local retail stores to survive and perhaps even new ones to locate there.

Existing commercial property owners also need to think outside the box when seeking tenants for their properties.

They need to learn from successful shopping centre owners and identify what type of retailer may work well in complementing the existing retailers and seeking out possible tenants who may be willing to avail of such opportunities.

In particular, the owners may need to identify retailers who are willing to invest in staff who can provide expert advice on a range of consumer goods, whether it is IT products, health food, or sport and fitness products.

For instance, one of the most successful sports wear retailers, the Canadian-based yoga clothers retailer Lululemon, was originally established in Vancouver only 14 years ago as a store and community hub where people could learn about and discuss the physical aspects of healthy living, as well as shop.

This is just one successful example of how the concept of blending education and retailing can reap rewards and can offer inspiration for those councillors and commercial property owners who wish to save our town centres.

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