Dún Laoghaire searches for ways to weather the storm as recession bites
High rents and high rates have led to some businesses in the town ceasing to trade
“Marks and Spencer closing isn’t the end of the world. It’s just another shop,” states Graham Mongey. Mongey is one of three family members who own JJ Darboven’s in Dún Laoghaire, a specialist tea and coffee shop trading for 25 years. He’s referring to the news that broke on Wednesday that Marks and Spencer is to close four of its Irish shops, including the Dún Laoghaire branch.
“I wouldn’t be too worried about it,” he says. “We’re never going to be a Dundrum and we shouldn’t be trying to. We have the harbour and the pier, and lots of small family businesses. We should have nice fish and chip shops on the front, like Howth does; we should be making Dún Laoghaire a place to go to relax. People don’t go to Dundrum to relax; they go to shop. But there is definitely a need to make more parking available here, at a much cheaper rate. People want to park for three hours. An hour is too short, two hours isn’t long enough, three is enough that you stop worrying. It needs to be cheaper.”
It’s currently at least €2 an hour to park in Dún Laoghaire town centre, depending on where you park. Some spaces are owned by the council, other by the harbour, or various shopping centres, at least one of which charges €2.40 an hour.
Jim Ryan is Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council’s communications officer. “They’re independent commercial entities. We can’t tell them what to charge,” Ryan says, when asked if all the owners of parking spaces in the town could agree on a flat rate.
“And the council currently have 90 per cent occupancy of our spaces, so prices aren’t putting people off, although I admit the perception is there from the public that parking is a problem. Also, the council don’t clamp you,” he stresses. “The harbour car park will clamp you.” However, if you forget to feed the meter, the council issues parking fines instead, which is €60 a time.
Wessel Badenhorst is the council’s enterprise officer. “The perception that local people shop locally is not true. They don’t,” he says. “They have too much choice elsewhere. That’s not just Dún Laoghaire’s problem; it’s happening in small towns all over Ireland. ”
Badenhorst sees collaboration with the harbour and “bringing tourists into the town” as key to the town’s future. His wishlist for how the town could develop includes a night economy on George’s Street, designated specialist shops offering organic produce to attract local shoppers, street furniture and cycle facilities. “We’re doing a good job on the sea front,” he says. “We need to work back from the coast to the main street, to bring tourists up into the town.”
“Parking,” is the first word that Nonnie Hilton, manager of StockXchange clothing shop, says when asked what she thinks might help attract more shoppers to the town.
‘Charity shop village’
“When Dundrum opened, there was a rate here for a while that was €2 for three hours, but that’s gone now. It should be brought back. The town is becoming like a ghost town. It’s turning into a charity shop village.”
There are 804 properties in Dún Laoghaire that pay rates. Of those, 82 per cent pay less than €10,000 a year, and the remainder pay anything up to €100,000. In common with many other towns around the country, high rents and rates have been resulting in some businesses ceasing to trade.
George’s Street is the main shopping artery through Dún Laoghaire. At present, there are at least 48 properties on the street that are vacant, for sale, for let or closed; the majority of them retail spaces. Collectively, they make a significant negative visual impact on the streetscape.
John Hyland has been running “Dún Leary’s Last Corner Shop” newsagent and small grocery for 30 years. “Marks and Spencer closing is disastrous,” he says. “But it was in an inaccessible part of the street. If you could have parked closer to it, I’m sure they would be keeping it open.”
‘The street will die’
“Penneys is the biggest anchor left here now. If that goes, the street will die, but probably the councillors wouldn’t agree with me.” This is the view of Danny Heffernan, manager of the Irish Cancer Society charity shop.
There is a council-owned space at the People’s Park end of the street that has been operating as a pop-up shop on a rotating basis to different people; some of them designers, artists and crafts practitioners. At present, four painters are showing their work there. One of them is Rai Uhlemann.
“The whole emphasis on Dún Laoghaire and development by the council is on the seafront,” he says. “The buildings on this street are lovely, but they’re full of crap shops.” When asked what he means by this, Uhlemann says “pound shops”.
Don McManus is both the owner of McManus’s jewellers, which has been in business since 1928, and the chair of the Dún Laoghaire Business Association (DLBA). His shop is opposite Marks and Spencer. “It’s a very busy store, so I’m at a loss as to why they’re closing,” he comments. “The decision to close it was probably made a year ago in London. I’m sure they will be back in the future, but they will come back having reinvented what they can offer.”
Members of the DLBA meet weekly. “What we’re all facing now is how to change attitudes: of the public towards towns, and of the traders themselves,” he says. “The hub of this town is the harbour.”
‘Pieces of the jigsaw’
Two months ago, the DLBA brought free wi fi to George’s Street and Marine Road, which leads to the harbour. The idea is to draw cruise ship crew and passengers to the commercial part of the town: wi fi is notoriously expensive at sea. “The future of Dún Laoghaire is in marine leisure tourism,” he stresses. “Some pieces of the jigsaw of the town – like Marks and Spencer – will be taken out, and others will be put in, like Nando’s and Starbucks, which are both coming in.” McManus is openly optimistic about Dún Laoghaire’s future. “There is no other way to be. There is no fairy godmother out there who is going to save us.”