Free parking for selected periods, rate cuts and high visibility policing are among a raft of measures being proposed by a committee of TDs and Senators to reinvigorate business in towns and village centres across the country.
Business groups have long been flagging up problems facing small firms in main streets across the State, including energy costs, property taxes and rates, regulation and issues surrounding the black market. Research from commercial property experts CBRE, cited by Retail Ireland, shows a vacancy rate of 21.6pc in Athlone on its main street early last year, as well as 14.3pc in Patrick Street in Cork and 16.3pc in Limerick.
On foot of these concerns, the Oireachtas Jobs Committee held several public hearings between July and September last year and yesterday published a report outlining 15 key recommendations to tackle the issue.
Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, committee chair, said job creation and retention at a local and rural level is one of the key issues facing towns and villages.
"It is vital that we formulate the necessary policies and legislation to best support local business. Growth and job creation at a local level contributes not only to community economies by bringing growth and innovation to the area, but it also supports our national recovery," she said.
Key areas examined in the report include commercial rates, the creation of a digital high street and the management of town centres.
Commercial rates are paid by businesses to councils to fund services like street cleaning and public lighting and the report pointed out that along with rent, wages and electricity, they are the biggest costs to a small business.
The report noted that during the public hearings, lobby group the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) and others highlighted the success of an incentive run in Limerick to provide grant relief, based on certified fit-out cost, up to a maximum of 50pc of annual rates in year one, and 25pc in year two. The committee recommended that a scheme based on the Limerick model should be more widely rolled out.
It also separately noted that while Irish consumers are now spending more than €6bn online every year, less than a third of this goes to Irish retailers, and just 23pc of small companies here have a digital presence. The committee has called for the Government's trading online voucher scheme, which provides grants to small businesses of up to €2,500 to create an online presence, to be more widely publicised.
Other recommendations include having Tourism Ireland promote towns and villages as shopping destinations, the Government to monitor banking service costs and a campaign be rolled out to encourage businesses to switch energy providers.
John Lyons, committee vice chair, said the report offers practical solutions to bring life back into towns and villages ravaged by the recession.