New councils must act to stop rot, say shopowners
STRUGGLING retailers in towns across the country have laid down the gauntlet to newly elected officials to act fast to curb the growing number of boarded-up units in their own decaying regional centres.
On what were once bustling main streets, an epidemic of unused shop units now blights the retail landscape in towns and cities around the country.
One in five shops nationwide are now vacant and businesses around the country are failing at a higher rate over the past six months than at any time since the founding of the Irish State.
In Dublin 10.6 per cent of shops lie empty, with the figure jumping to 18 per cent in Athlone and 20 per cent in Cork.
The deepening crisis in the retail sector has led to the Irish Chambers of Commerce and Retail Excellence Ireland (REI) calling for urgent action by councils and by NAMA – now one of the primary landlords in many city and town centres around Ireland – to reverse the extensive damage already caused to Ireland's main shopping towns, many of which are suffering from a toxic mixture of boom-time rents and rates and cash-strapped customers.
"Ireland's newly elected local representatives need to be aware that the retail industry is the biggest employer in the country and that the sector has a vital role to play in the success of local and regional economies.
"This needs to be reflected in the priorities and decisions of local government," Retail Ireland director Stephen Lynam told the Sunday Independent.
"One of the most significant challenges for Irish retailers is the high level of local authority charges, such as commercial rates. We are calling on our new councillors to remember that a recovery in the retail sector will reduce the number of vacant units, increase the rates base and ultimately provide extra funding for much needed local services.
"A key way to ensure such a recovery is to reduce rates for retailers and offer rates holidays for operators that choose to take on a vacant unit. That way we can breathe new life into Ireland's towns and cities," Mr Lynam added.
In Naas, Co Kildare, there has been a glimmer of hope in recent days, with talks rumoured to be under way to secure a major retailer as the anchor tenant for a large, unfinished, multi-storey shopping centre at the very heart of the town.
However, business owners in the once-thriving county town have slammed the outgoing town council for allowing their town centre to fall into decline in recent years.
Traders in the town – which has plummeted from being the number one place to shop in 2006 to number 74th in Retail Excellence Ireland's 2014 survey – say county council members continually ignored their appeals to implement revival plans for the main street.
"We presented the business improvement district scheme to the council a couple of years ago and they rejected that. Then the CEO of Retail Excellence Ireland offered to come down and give his advice to the councillors on the town and they wouldn't do that," Antoinette Buckley, the owner of Anni ladies' boutique, told the Sunday Independent.
"Other towns have put these revival plans in place and they're working," Antoinette added.
"The footfall has gone down by 70 per cent in Naas, more than 13 shops have closed their doors in the last year. I've seen what's happened to the town and it's such a pity. They have to put a three-year revival plan in.
"We asked them three years ago to do that and we wouldn't be having this conversation if they had. I am hoping that it's not all talk with the new people and they will actually do something."
The problems faced by retailers in Naas are reflected in many towns across the country, with a number of long-established, main street retail businesses in Dundalk, Tullamore, Athlone and Tralee all forced to shut down in recent months.
The recent closure of yet another prominent business in the heart of Naas, ladies' boutique Michael H, has compounded the already steep decline in retailers on the town's main street.
Just months ago Hynes Shoes store, also on the main street, closed its doors after 21 years in business.
In August 2013, the town's Marks and Spencer store shut, with the loss of 37 jobs and a short time later the adjacent business the Dandelion Market, which housed 10 independent retailers also closed.
And a prominent site at the centre of Naas town, which was once owned by Super-quinn and bought over by Penneys at the height of the Celtic Tiger, has remained unused for over five years.
According to Richie Whelan proprietor of Richie Whelan's Menswear, a number of issues have led to the town's decline, including the introduction of pay parking and a number of large idle sites in the town centre.
"Since Superquinn moved out of the town and Tesco opened a few kilometres outside of the town that's had a devastating affect on the town," Richie Whelan told the Sunday Independent.
"We have a Superquinn site here, which is completely empty and we have another half-built shopping centre across the road. There were probably car parking spaces for about a thousand cars over there, but that shopping centre was built on them, with the result there are very little car parking spaces in the town. So people are very frustrated."
Mr Whelan has been working in his store since 1968, but took over the business 21 years ago.
"In the good times, you couldn't get a space in the town, money couldn't buy it, but now it's the opposite – you can have your pick of shop units," he explained.
"Rates are a huge problem as well because they are based on the boom times."
Jackie O'Connor of Scruples ladies' boutique believes that while Naas still has the huge advantage of being one of Ireland's premiere destinations for boutique shopping, business owners did not receive enough political support when the economic downturn took hold.
"We have tried to work with the councillors in the past," Ms O'Connor said.
"Very few of them worked with us, most of them listened, but didn't do anything. Hopefully with the younger, newer politicians coming through now they'll be more open to change.
"Naas is a great town, we can't look back but we'd like to look forward with councillors who will work with the town and for the town."