Life in a dole blackspot
“We seem to be denuded of small businesses in Limerick, and the city centre has taken a hammering,” says Bogdanovic of Mabs. “Once something closes in the city centre, nothing seems to take its place.”
It’s true that the middle of the city seems strikingly bare once the shops close for the day. Very few people are walking about. In common with many other towns and cities around the country, the empty shops, buildings, offices and units to let or for sale are even more noticeable once trading hours end.
On one stretch of O’Connell Street alone, every second building is unoccupied. One of the buildings for sale is the Bank, a former bar and restaurant, whose faded blue menu still advertises its “signature dish”, the Rogue Traders Irish Stew, for €13.95.
What’s less obvious however, but what’s also happening quietly under the radar, is what Ann Marie Gleeson describes as “a minor little revolution going on in Limerick with new businesses”. Gleeson is Paul Partnership’s enterprise officer, and she reports a doubling of numbers in recent years of people who have lost jobs wanting to set up their own businesses.
“They want to reinvent themselves, and they’re looking for niches in the market. Service-orientated businesses, such as mobile hairdressing, fitness, car repairs, personal care and beauty, are big. So is the whole area of food, especially artisan food. We’re amazed at the energy people have.”
“The Government is focusing too much on exports,” says Gleeson. “It should be acknowledging our small enterprises and businesses.” Of those who have set up on their own with the help of the partnership since 2008, 70 per cent are still in business. “They’re not millionaires, but they’re single sole traders, and they’re managing their own lives again.”
One of those the partnership has helped is Magdalena Jakubowska, a Polish-born 35-year-old who has been in Limerick for seven years. After a period of unemployment, together with her husband, she set up M K Ironing and Cleaning Service in July. “I charge €3.99 to iron 1kg, and €1.50 a shirt, because they take longer,” she says. “I think I am the cheapest in Limerick. I checked the prices everywhere.”
At the National Franchise Centre, which was established in 2010 by Limerick Institute of Technology, in partnership with Limerick Chamber, in response to the closure of Dell, the talk is also upbeat. “We are very stringent about promoting a positive attitude. When people come on our start-your-own-business courses they have made a decision to empower themselves,” says Martina McGrath, the enterprise development manager.
“In this country the culture has always been that if you failed, you’re a failure. The banks won’t touch you afterwards,” says Gillian Barry, the institute’s enterprise manager. “In other countries, failure in business is seen as a learning experience and something really valuable.”