Sunday 30 April 2017

'Beacon' of light emerges from Dublin 'dead zone'

A fully booked hotel, busy market and new businesses all point to recovery

Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

At the Beacon South Quarter in Dublin's Sandyford, the long-standing joke has worn thin -- the comical giant dust cover infamously draped over the largest unfinished South Quarter apartment block has now faded and is being shredded by the wind.



Like the Anglo docklands headquarters shell and the long vacant Walford, the stillborn Beacon block, with its fanciful cover of painted balcony inhabitants peering to the Dublin mountains, had became a national icon for all the wrong reasons -- a great big poster building for the crash. So the Beacon should be an unlikely spot to find signs of elusive economic green shoots.

But at lunchtime on Friday in the streets beneath the raggy banner, there's no time for recession. People are moving about in numbers, in good spirits and with purpose. The location appears to be having a new burst of life. At Ben Dunne's gym -- opened just two months ago -- a line of well-groomed young men are marching determinedly on the treadmills. Aldi has opened to join Dunnes Stores, and the shut Piano Bar is about to be reopened as a sports pub. Fiat is soon expected to join the cluster of car sales outlets. Late last year the Cluid housing association moved to acquire 58 apartments over two floors, which will soon be occupied, and receiver Mazars has been slashing commercial rents -- a key factor cited by many in bringing in new businesses. There have even been reports that some of the key empty towers have been sold on by Nama to developers who are eager to complete them.

The four-star Beacon boutique hotel is fully booked on the night at €115 for a double room. The queues of business tourists are spilling off coaches and dragging wheelie baggage to the check-in desk. The lobby and bar are also packed for lunch, and will be again in the evening.

Out back, even the taxi men are upbeat. One driver, formerly an architectural engineer, says he has secured his first job interview in more than three years, while another notes that his airport trips have increased from one a week to perhaps seven a week.

The hotel's Pakistan-born manager Raja Kamran believes the presence of the big multinationals has anchored the area, while recent rent decreases for offices have helped bring still more activities in. "I can't understand why property owners in the city centre will leave their shops closed rather than take lower rents," he says. "We've learnt here in Sandyford that business won't come if your shutters are down."

Outside, swarms of well-dressed twenty- and thirty-somethings are milling around the al fresco spread laid on by Irish Village Markets -- a mobile carnival of reborn recession casualties who have transformed themselves into foodie entrepreneurs. Founded by organic farmer Des Vallely, the mobile market has 19 covered stalls selling competitively priced gourmet dishes from paella to bratwurst and falafel -- and even horse kebabs for Sandyford's French workers.

Leah Duxbury was an events manager with a big company when the recession hit. She and her boyfriend John, a former sales executive, started Dux &Co, a gourmet meatball and pasta outlet. Last year their tapas plate won the prize for best dish in the Dublin Street Food Awards. "It's hard work but we're building a brand and we're planning to open a restaurant."

Sally Kenny has just started a new job at the Now Factory, a wholly Irish tech-based communications consultancy that employed 60 people this time last year and has since more than doubled its staff to 130. "It's all very exciting -- this company really is going places."

Swede Karin Lindell started in October with Service Source, also hiring. Like many Europeans employed around the Beacon, she doesn't think Ireland is such a bad place to be right now. "I like it. It's good."

Over a mall beside the Beacon Hospital, pharmacist Mary Guinee says new healthcare firms are opening in the Beacon Court Mall.

"Our traffic is definitely up thanks to the spate of new health care businesses."

Among these is Irish Private Medical Centres, set up four months ago by Tristan Healy and David Howard.

"People are fed up going to GPs who haven't lowered their prices and keep charging them large," says Healy. "We offer a full GP service on a 'club' system, which costs €30 per month for a family with three children or €10 per month for someone over 55. Once you're a member, you can visit as many times as you like without paying more."

They have 1,500 members and are already planning a second outlet.

Over at Omar's cafe, Brian Whelan is having a late lunch. The boss of airtaxrefund.com helps air passengers to reclaim tax on missed flights. "Years ago there were 36 of us, and last year we were down to two. Twelve months on and things are a bit more stable -- there are four employed here now and we're hanging in there. Debtors are being more considerate now and creditors are not nearly as aggressive."

At "The Edge" block 1, Brendan (not his real name), a separated dad, says he is happy with the two-bed he bought four years ago. "Eleven blocks were built; eight are fully occupied, two are finished but empty. They're well built actually. My children live nearby, it's 20 minutes to work on the Luas and I'm beside the M50. What more do you want?"

Back in the hotel bar, Marcin Szot, a Polish photographer who lives in the apartments above the Beacon, meets Jill McCann and Ray Cotter, an engaged couple. The three work together in a tobacco multinational located nearby and they're here to discuss their wedding photos.

"There are far more people around these days -- in the apartments, in the hotel, in the general area. When I came here first it was dead, more unfinished," says Szot.

Seated nearby are Miriam Burke and Anne-Marie Turcotte, professional trainers flown into Dublin on contract by Microsoft.

"We always stay here when we come to Dublin, but this is the first time there's ever been a question of getting a room because it's fully booked," says Burke, who is based in Barcelona. "As an occasional visitor home I'm definitely getting a sense that Ireland has already done the hard part and is starting to come out of the crisis when other countries like Spain are not even getting to grips with it yet."

Turcotte, a soft-spoken French Canadian currently based in Lausanne, adds: "Even Switzerland is only now starting to ask itself hard questions as the effects of the global crisis start to sink in. But to me the Irish are like the Lebanese, once everything stops falling down around them they get back out again, make some jokes and start rebuilding. Things might actually be better than some Irish people believe -- but it's also clear to me that others are simply getting on with it."

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