What a delight it was to stroll into Limerick city centre on Saturday morning and to be greeted by the bright tones of a local jazz band who had set up outside Tadgh Kearney’s store on the corner of Thomas St and Little Catherine St.
As I wandered up Thomas St my curiosity was immediately aroused. There was something different about the atmosphere in the city that Saturday morning.
As I made my way up the street crowds were gathered outside the little cafes. They stood on the street corners. Some were dancing. Children were gazing in awe.
Outside O’Connor’s Butchers a BBQ egg was proffering pulled pork, burgers and sausages to the passers-by. Delectable smells filled the air. The atmosphere really had the air of a mini Las Ramblas on a busy day.
For a long time now I have engaged in debate around how we market our city well, particularly on weekends. I have heard from many who argue that Limerick city centre can’t compete with the Crescent. I disagree.
Along Cruises St the market stalls were busy. One cannot but argue that this street takes on a very different feel on Saturday morning.
These small interventions have only taken place in the city over the past two years. We haven’t got everything perfect in those two years but the efforts made to animate our city centre on busy shopping days have reaped rewards in that short period of time.
Limerick city centre has struggled to attract new big name retailers over recent years. The reasons are simple. Location scouts for big name brands will take one factor into the equation before investing – footfall.
In the absence of major new retail openings all we can do as a city is to develop a destination that is about more than just shopping. We must focus on the creation of an experiential environment that attracts people who want to feel part of a community.
Done well, footfall will hopefully follow.
Interventions like the Cruises St market stalls and the urban garden may not be radical but they make a difference. The addition of the band on Thomas St was another very simple but effective addition last Saturday.
As we enter the silly season of the Summer months we have a great opportunity to follow on with more innovative, simple and creative ways of making our urban offer attractive to people.
So what we could do?
How about purchasing 200 or 300 red and blue deck chairs? How about positioning them randomly along our waterfront or in the People’s Park at times when we know the weather will be good. Something like this immediately sends a positive message out. ‘Sit here and enjoy your day”.
How about putting a busking fund together and auditioning quality street entertainers then position them at strategic points around the city on weekends? Music radically changes the atmosphere of a place.
How about inviting members of Limerick FC into town on a Saturday and organising a penalty shootout between players and local kids on Bedford Row? Markets Limerick FC and gives a sense of place to this pedestrianised street.
How about sourcing outdoor theatre companies to produce pieces during the summer in Arthur’s Quay Park?
How about a mini proms? Inviting local orchestras, local choirs, local music groups and bands to perform at set times in the city over the summer months.
There are dozens of simple ideas out there all of which would make a small impact on how our city centre is perceived. The summer period is an ideal time to try. Some will fail, some will blossom. The main point is that as a city we try to create a unique selling point.
In order to do this, we need the buy in from both the local authority, the local Chamber and the retailers themselves. Small investment can reap big rewards but the responsibility must be shared.
It doesn’t cost a fortune to market these things either. Social media and word of mouth can suffice.
Limerick is performing well in terms of job creation and hospitality. We will soon see the Hanging Gardens finally reach completion with a potential 700 new jobs hitting the city centre.
We must be also ahead of the game in terms of coming up with novel approaches to our urban offer.
If we think creatively, commit to supporting good ideas and managing these ideas well everybody – restaurant, cafés, shops and bars – will benefit.
Most importantly we will send out a subtle message. Limerick city is open for business and boy, if you support your city centre, you will get one hell of an experience.