Monday 19 February 2018

The hidden hand behind city centre economics

Richard Guiney is a man with controversial views -- having vandals cleaning the city streets being just one -- but his motivation is creating a better space to do business, writes John Mulligan

Restorative justice. The words purr nicely off the tongue. And if Richard Guiney had his way, there'd be recalcitrant offenders clad in orange jumpsuits scraping dirt off the capital's footpaths.

It might not be de rigueur to be so outspoken on such topics, but it's hard to blame the chief executive of Dublin's privately funded Business Improvement District (BID) for thinking the way he does.

The BID, established five years ago and bankrolled by 2,500 city businesses, has spent the intervening time improving the image of the city.

It's been liaising with gardai to reduce crime, hosting event such as fashion festivals, improving lighting, cleaning, getting so-called street ambassadors out and about to assist visitors and Dubliners alike and generally doing a lot of the things that should have been done by public bodies in the first place.

A major bugbear is graffiti. It easily blights, is expensive to remove and can reappear within hours. In its first year, BID (which last year had a €2.5m purse) spent €175,000 having the stuff erased from business premises and other locations, with rapid response the key to winning the war.

Within three years, the amount of graffiti appearing declined dramatically and BID was only spending €45,000 a year getting rid of it.

All that changed again last year.

"A spate of it started this time last year. Four guys. They destroyed the place," says Mr Guiney. "Before that, we'd been spending about €4,000 a month removing graffiti. It went up to between €18,000 and €25,000 a month. It's criminal. We could have used that money to do a really big event for the city."

Allied to the anger over the wasted money is the fact that these were teenagers from well-to-do homes. All had their collars felt after being caught on camera and files are currently before the Director of Public Prosecutions.

"The courts are very lenient. I'd like to see restorative justice. I'd like to see people like that in orange boiler suits and out washing the street or doing something useful. I'm not sure what the benefit of locking them up would be."

But aside from the graffiti, BID has been working to boost footfall numbers and hopefully bring more euros back into the tills of city centre retailers that have migrated to a raft of suburban shopping centres.

Thirteen BID cameras track footfall numbers and Mr Guiney says that last Christmas the numbers were up 8.5pc on the previous year -- the first time a city centre increase had been recorded since 2006.

However, that increase was also on the back of atrocious weather conditions in the run up to Christmas 2010 that kept shoppers away in droves. Still, he's happy.

"It was very encouraging. We did stop the rot. In the first quarter of this year, we're up again -- by a modest amount, but at least we're not in decline and that is against a backdrop of retail sales that aren't great," adds Mr Guiney.

He says that restaurants are now the "single biggest draw" for consumers to the city centre.

"There are very strong restaurant offerings now that have captured the imagination. The deals are good and you can dine out for quite a modest outlay and the restaurants are very good."

A major Dublin City Council refurbishment of the Grafton Street area will also commence next January, something that's been broadly welcomed by local businesses.

But with retail sales still trending down, is the recent additional footfall just more window shoppers or is it translating into more money being spent?

The company that analyses footfall data for BID has just embarked on a project to examine the turnover of 120 sample member businesses. The statistical investigation should give an indication of how the wider BID membership is doing.

"That will tell us if footfall is turning into money in tills. It'll be this time next year before we can start pulling out trends from that data. My gut feeling is that we're very slightly up across the board. The restaurants are up. We're doing well in the 18-35 age group, but we do have work to do with families and the older market."

None of this is easy. All it takes is one high-profile case to reinforce reasons people already have -- rightly or wrongly -- for not foraying into the city during the day, but perhaps particularly at night.

Within the past couple of weeks you could have your pick from savage assaults and a killing. These things happen in all big cities, but that doesn't stop them from undoubtedly putting some people off.

The BID -- whose 2.5sq km area includes 115 streets containing almost 4,000 buildings -- has worked closely with the gardai in tacking anti-social behaviour from general mischief to aggressive begging and street drug dealing -- illegal and prescription products.

Mr Guiney says that the close co-operation, based on event reports received from BID members, has frequently influenced how the gardai deploy resources, helping them to be more effective.

More controversially perhaps, BID has been fighting to have services such as drug clinics shifted to more "appropriate" locations away from shopping neighbourhoods. It also fought against the creation of a large prisoner rehabilitation and homeless centre on Wolfe Tone Square, close to the Jervis Street Shopping Centre near Abbey Street.

Its lobbying (and a local outcry) succeeded in stymieing the project.

Mr Guiney maintains there was an almost immediate positive benefit when it was clear the prisoner rehabilitation centre wouldn't proceed.

"The modern retailer will look at what's in an area, at what the area says. They'll wonder will potential customers be walking past their doors and if there's something that's going to deter them," he says.

"If there is, they'll take their money and their investment elsewhere. When the prisoner rehabilitation centre didn't go ahead we got two really good additions to the Henry Street area -- New Look and Forever21."

Without getting too sanctimonious, are two extra shops worth preventing a centre that hopes to provide a wider social benefit -- however difficult that may be to achieve?

"Footfall increased by 10pc in the Henry Street area after those two shops opened. You're looking at increased employment, tax revenue and whatever," says Mr Guiney.

"Don't get me wrong. It's a matter of geography. Social services are part of the solution, but we do need to consider the geography. Before BID came along, the city centre in general didn't object to these types of things so it got them in the commercial and tourist corners. What we're saying is that in a core commercial zone, there should be core commercial activity. The economics of the situation do need to be taken into account."

If all this starts sounding like it's one long slog, Mr Guiney says the opposite is true. Every day brings new challenges, he says, and he's clearly enthused.

"Anything that impacts business -- positively or negatively -- is of enormous interest to us. You just don't know what's going to happen and I love that. The diversity is fantastic. We've a great team and we have great fun. We do work extraordinarily hard."

He's fairly confident that the BID members currently balloting whether or not to extend the organisation's lifetime by another five years will do so.

"I'd hate to be a politician," he says, despite his job having a high degree of cross-over. "I feel like one sometimes though."

Mind you, a policy pressing for restorative justice would probably go down a treat with voters.

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