My heart breaks for any independent retailer in Limerick city.
Thursday night is late night shopping night in the city. Or rather, Thursday is late night shopping night in Limerick city if shops were open.
On a recent Thursday night I found myself walking through the city around 7pm. Walking down Cruises St the only encounter I had was with a man pushing a bin up a lane. Other than him there wasn’t a soul.
I scanned the street. Not one unit open at 7pm. In fact, throughout the city you could count on one hand the number of shops who had committed to the city’s ‘late night Thursday opening’.
I decided to hop on a bus to the Crescent and found myself entering ‘the biggest shopping complex outside Dublin’ just before 7.30pm.
The city and Crescent were like chalk and cheese that night.
Every single unit in the Crescent was open. Footfall was strong up and down every wing of the complex. Cafes were busy. An information night was being held in the central core.
Speaking to various retailers over the past few weeks, the consensus is that our city centre is dying from a retail perspective.
2017 was a particularly difficult trading year according to one established trader.
Like almost every Irish city over the past 8 years, Limerick has suffered from the effects of the economic downturn. But there does seem to be a sense that Limerick has been hit worse than most.
We really must address the issues concerning retail in Limerick city centre or risk witnessing an exodus of the few big-name brands sticking it out in our city.
What has happened to our city centre? Some people tell me it’s the free parking issue. Others tell me it’s the rain. Experts tells me it’s footfall.
The fact of the matter is this – bit by bit our city has lost its soul as a shopping destination and it’s hard to see where the solutions lie.
25 years ago, we knocked a magnificent piece of our city’s history to create a ‘manufactured street’. Cruise St was pitched by all our planning gurus at the time as “Limerick’s Grafton St”.
Cruises St was a disaster from day one. Retail units were too small. The new street boasted no evening activity. It has little or no above the shop living potential.
Bedford Row is a more recent addition in the annals of Limerick’s retail history, but its story isn’t too dissimilar.
Bedford Row, despite undergoing a major redevelopment and relaunch as a new pedestrian destination, has struggled to retain some of the well-known brands who once traded there.
In fact every street in our city centre will have its own tale of woe when it comes to the Limerick retail story.
Here’s a little exercise for you – go online and do a quick scan of the directories of the Crescent Shopping Centre, the Jetland Shopping Centre, Childers Road retail park and Castletroy Shopping Centre (which has witnessed a recent phoenix-like resurgence).
Consider the high street names that have chosen to base themselves in the out of town retail parks dotted around Limerick city and ask yourself what we have in Limerick city that to compete.
Consider the fact that our city centre’s living population is miniscule when compared to other urban centres.
The past decade has been a tough one across the board. Thankfully we have finally overcome those days. Rates are being paid – 80% of commercial rates were collected in Limerick last year.
Limerick has a masterplan. Limerick is being described consistently as ‘a city on the up’. Limerick is being lauded as a great little place to do business.
In the meantime, our city is dying from a retail perspective.
It is crucial that we develop an actionable plan to revitalise our city centre. It’s crucial we attract new retail players to our city’s retail mix. It’s crucial we being to manage our city centre as any shopping centre worth its salt would be managed.
Speaking to various stakeholders it is clear that I’m not the only one concerned. I have received calls, emails and social media comments. People stopped me on the street to give their opinion.
There’s no doubt that Limerick is doing well these days. The renewed confidence has given our city’s marketers a spring in their step.
Physical progress is very slow, however, and if we buy in to the mantra that our city centre is well and truly open for business we are blinding ourselves to the facts.
Almost all of those who contacted me recently bemoaned the fact that our city centre’s offer has been undermined and devalued by the out-of-town shopping centres that were historically allowed to surround our city.
“What would I come into town when I can park for free”, one noted.
“Anti-social behaviour is rife in the city centre. I don’t feel safe with my kids”, another said.
“The quality of the retail offered in Limerick city just isn’t good enough to attract me in”, said a Mungret resident.
Then the Marks and Spencer argument came up, with many suggesting that the presence of M&S would be the saviour of Limerick city’s retail woes.
One business person suggested that the creation of jobs in the city and having more people living in the city is the most important nut to crack.
In writing my column last week I never suggested I had the solution. I wrote the piece out of a genuine concern that I have both for the existing traders in our city and for the what’s potentially coming down the tracks.
Now that we have emerged from a ghastly recession we should be celebrating.
We should be celebrating regular new city centre investment. We should be celebrating the new home being built. We should be celebrating the many new jobs being created.
Instead we are reading weekly of the new levels of anti-social behaviour now seen as a scourge in the city. We are seeing retailers calling emergency meetings with members of An Garda Siochana to urgently address the issue.
Instead of retailers celebrating new levels of footfall, they are reporting 2017 as the worst trading year they have encountered for some time.
The reaction I am getting is suggesting that the plans we have in Limerick are not happening fast enough. City centre stakeholders are losing patience. They are tired of the regular announcements telling us of all the wonderful things Limerick can expect to happen in the future.
In 2030 the majority of those currently making decisions on our city’s behalf will be well settled into their retirement. 2030 is too far away to have any meaning to those traders in our city who are currently fighting their corner to stay afloat.
The 2030 plan, in my opinion, is too focussed on the development of office developments and, put simply, is not being realised fast enough.
People are getting tired of hearing about how well Limerick is doing when the facts tell another story. Attracting investment in cities is based on footfall. Our city doesn’t have the footfall.
Modern city’s attract living. Our city’s population is too low.
Great cities offer a multitude of experiences. Years of bad planning and greedy decisions have left us with a city devoid of it’s great experiences.
Decision makers in our city claim use blue sky thinking when it comes to our city’s future. I worry that the clouds are slowly gathering.