Tralee is in rude health

Simon Brouder

The results of the Tralee Town Centre 'Health Check' are in and the county council and chamber should be able to take considerable comfort from the study's findings.

Last October, Tralee was chosen as one of eight towns to take part in the 'Health Check' pilot programme which examined the economic well-being of some of Ireland's larger rural towns.

The project was overseen by the Heritage Council and in Tralee it was led by Kerry County Council and Tralee Chamber Alliance with I.T Tralee's Information Systems and Marketing programmes carrying out the research.

This research - carried out by a team of ITT students in October and November 2016 - involved surveys of shoppers and business owners; surveys of land property use; environmental quality studies; footfall counts and an analysis of crime figures.

The main areas the study examined were footfall; shopper and retailer satisfaction and outlook; traffic and parking patterns; vacancy rates and overall perceptions of the town.

The key results of the 'Health Check' were announced last Thursday at an official launch ceremony in The Ashe Memorial Hall which was attended by Housing and Urban Renewal Minister Damien English.

At the ceremony ITT media and information technology lecturer Martha Farrell outlined the key findings contained in the report.

Overall, the results were positive with Tralee seen as a busy, attractive town that's easy to get around and offers a good mix of high quality restaurants and good value shopping.

There were problems however and these will need to be addressed urgently.

Despite the fact that there are over 3,000 parking spaces in the town, nearly half the shoppers and two thirds of the business owners surveyed identified the lack of convenient parking as a major issue.

Safety was also a concern with 44 per cent of shoppers and 44 per cent of business owners saying they don't feel safe in the town centre after dark.

Mayor of Tralee Cllr Norma Foley said the 'Health Check' provides a blueprint for the development of the town going forward.

"There are many positives in the report but we need to be conscious of the challenges too. What we need to do now is deal with and take steps to respond to the findings," she said.

Parking still the main issue for most

Despite the best efforts of Kerry County Council and Tralee Chamber Alliance to convince them otherwise, shoppers and business owners in Tralee are still adamant that there aren't enough parking spaces in the town.

Parking - or rather the perceived lack of it - was the single biggest issue identified by the business people surveyed, 67 per cent of whom said parking facilities in Tralee are poor.

Shoppers weren't quite as critical but they still cited it as a major issue with 38 per cent criticising the town's parking arrangements.

Parking was also identified as the single biggest area that could be improved in the town with 46 per cent of the business owners surveyed saying parking facilities should be improved.

That's compared to 16 per cent who wanted to see the number of vacant units tackled and the five per cent who wanted to see more public events staged in the town.

Shoppers tended to agree though not by as large a margin. Parking was also the area that the majority (23 per cent) of surveyed shoppers want to see improved.

The widespread view that there aren't enough parking spaces in the town would appear to fly in the face of the facts.

There are currently just over 3,000 parking spaces in Tralee which - according to the 2013 Tralee Transportation Strategy - should be more than enough to meet the town's needs.

The problem appears to lie with drivers' habits as most seem to prefer on street parking and tend to avoid car parks.

Of the 3,000 spaces in town, the vast majority (2,050) are in surface and multi-storey car parks.

Multi- storey car parks - of which Tralee has two - are particularly unpopular. Just over two thirds of respondents said they preferred to park in a surface car park as opposed to a multi-storey one.

It should also be noted that the Health Check survey was carried out before the removal of 66 on-street parking spaces as part of the Mall and Denny St redevelopment works.

Business outlook is good

One very welcome finding contained in the Health Check report is the fact that most local business owners have a very positive outlook for the years ahead.

When asked their opinions and expectations on what lies ahead in the next two years 55 per cent of the business owners who were surveyed said they expect trading to improve.

While slightly less positive, 21 per cent were still relatively upbeat and said they felt trading conditions and levels were likely to stay as they are.

Just 17 per cent said that they feared things were likely to get worse in the coming years.

As part of the health check process, 100 randomly selected business owners in the town centre's core retail area were invited to take part in the survey. In all, 69 businesses responded.

View that Tralee isn’t safe after dark poses a challenge

Of all the findings contained in the results of the 'Health Check' one should be a cause of major concern for the Chamber Alliance; County Council and the Gardaí.

Any suggestion - no matter how well intentioned - that Tralee isn't safe at night is typically greeted with a 'shoot the messenger' approach and tirades of abuse on social media.

However, while many in the town might not like to hear it, the Health Check shows that many people - visitors and locals alike - do not feel safe in Tralee after dark.

When asked to rate 20 key aspects of life in Tralee 44 per cent of the public and business respondents said they do not feel safe in the town at night.

That's a considerable number of people and their views need to be acknowledged.

It's also in stark contrast with the 60 per cent of shoppers who agree that the town feels safe during the day.

The finding that more than two in five people find Tralee dangerous after dark comes in the midst of the row over the town's new Taxi rank which many people refuse to use at night as they feel - justifiably in my opinion - that it is in a dangerous location.

Those that will feel the need to dispute the report's findings should note they are based on a scientific survey carried out by a respected, experienced and professional locally led team from IT Tralee.

At the launch of the Health Check Report last Thursday Mayor of Tralee Norma Foley acknowledged that the report contains 'challenges' that the town can, will and must meet.

Tralee's well organised bid for a Purple Flag has done much to boost the town's image but clearly the perception that the town is a dangerous place after dark is still widespread.

To counter that a concerted, combined effort is needed.

What should not be allowed to happen is that this crucial finding is ignored and that only the 'positives' in the health check report are acted upon.

The head in the sand approach hasn't worked before and it won't work now.

Opening for big retailers

There appears to be a major opening for prominent high street retail chains in Tralee.

While the service and value to be found in Tralee's shops was praised, just eight per cent said they came to the town for the selection of retailers. The majority of those surveyed (60 per cent) said they only shopped in the town out of convenience.

When asked "What type of shops were missing in Tralee?" most respondents suggested popular high street chains.

These included Marks and Spencer (who previously attempted to open an outlet at Manor West), Zara, River Island (who previously had an outlet on The Mall), H&M and Ikea.

While the variety of shops could improve over 90 per cent of respondents did say Tralee was their number one destination for clothing and food shopping.

Cafés and shops should be happy

If any group in Tralee should be happy with the results of the 'Health Check' it is the town's restaurateurs.

The hospitality sector in the town came in for high praise in the report with 77 per cent of shoppers surveyed praising the choice of cafés and restaurants in the town centre.

It wasn't just the quantity but the quality that was praised with exact same number praising the high standard of the local restaurants.

Business owners too are impressed with Tralee's foodie offerings with more than 80 per cent praising the variety and quality of the restaurants in the town.

Given the findings of another part of the survey local restaurants could play a big part in developing Tralee's tourist offering.

When asked what sort of events should be staged in town 32 per cent of the business respondents and 18 per cent of the surveyed shoppers said they would like to see more food festivals, promotions and markets.

While local eateries came in for the highest praise there was also praise for the town's retail offering and in particular the excellent service provided by local retailers.

A massive 73 per cent of shoppers surveyed praised the standard of service in local shops with just seven per cent claiming it was poor.

The town was also seen as easy to get around and good value. Exactly two thirds of those surveyed said the town is good value for money.

While the restaurants and shops came in for significant praise the report was not without its criticisms.

The lack of events in the town was the biggest criticism with 46 per cent of respondents saying the range of events in Tralee was poor.

While the town park came in for praise 40 per cent said the town lacked attractions other than shops and restaurants.

In terms of a sense of life in Tralee there was a decidedly mixed response. While 48 per cent said the town centre was vibrant 30 per cent said there was little or no vibrancy in the town when they visited. Businesses were even less upbeat with just 41 per cent describing the town as vibrant.