Dún Laoghaire vote on business district a ‘do or die’ moment for town

Retailers divided on merits of proposed Business Improvement District


More people than usual will be watching tonight’s meeting of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council. Some say the outcome of one vote will be a do-or-die moment for the town of Dún Laoghaire.

A month ago, 805 business owners were balloted on whether or not the town should become a Business Improvement District (BID). The Yes vote won and now councillors must decide if the proposal proceeds.

Either way, the debate is as divisive as ever. Antonella Barbati and Bhola Ditta, who own the Saffron and Sapphire shop, stand over their No vote because the 3 per cent added to the rates of all business owners in order to fund the scheme is more than they can afford, “especially for services we feel the council should provide.”

Dan Madden, owner of Madden’s Jewellers, voted No because he’s “not so sure the scheme will be of any great benefit to the town”. Brian P Nolan, from the Brian S Nolan store sees things differently: he voted Yes because the scheme was, “a way of councillors giving responsibility to traders to do something for themselves”.

John Hyland, who runs Dun Leary’s Last Corner Shop, voted No, but wishes he hadn’t: he now reckons that in a town where there are more than 100 empty business premises, “anything that helps the place can only be good for us all”.

Two people in particular seem to crystallise these opposing perspectives and what they say may help clarify issues for some before next Monday’s crucial vote. Councillor Victor Boyhan explains why he will not be supporting the initiative.

Little support
“For one thing it was a low turnout,” he says, referring to the fact that only 393 of the 805 business owners bothered to vote on the proposal ballot. Of those that did, 178 were against the proposal and 215 were for it, which is 27 per cent of the popular vote. “So, it has not been a resounding victory for the Yes camp, as they claim. Its proponents failed to convince a substantial number of people that what they were proposing was the right thing for Dún Laoghaire. If over 50 per cent voted in favour of it I would support the BID.”

Mr Boyhan also believes “the problems of Dún Laoghaire are more profound than [will be solved by the BID proponents] putting up balloons and Christmas lights” and that the estimated €220,000 they collected “is not going to do a lot”. What the town needed was “ a much bigger vision” and the help of politicians such as Eamon Gilmore, whose constituency it is.

“I admire Eamon but he has become totally remote. Yet he is the Tánaiste, he does sit at the Cabinet table every Tuesday morning and Ministers go to that table, bang their fists and get their pound of flesh for their constituents . . .

“I’d like to see, for example, tax designation status for the rejuvenation of certain parts of the town, as they did in Temple Bar. Let’s look at planning, make space for big stores to come here, not just small shops. We must look at the big picture to get the town back on its feet.”
Defending Mr Gilmore, however, Labour councillor Denis O’ Callaghan, said “It would appear to me that what Councillor Boyhan is suggesting is old-style PD, Fianna Fáil, crony politics, [as in] let the Minister come at the weekends with a tranche of money for the constituents, to the deprivation of other areas”.

Martin O’Byrne, who owns clothing shop Frewen and Aylward, is vice chairman of the Dún Laoghaire Business Association, the main proponent of the proposal. He dismisses Mr Boyhan’s criticisms succinctly: “He’s not a businessman”.

Mr O’Byrne explains that the idea for the BID came about because he and fellow members of the Business Association “saw the major development work done on the seafront and demise of the main street”, decided “the council are not going to get the main street back up to speed” and set about tackling the problem themselves.

“We are amazed at the negativity we encountered from ratepayers. As a ratepayer myself, who will have to throw money into this, I thought it was a no-brainer. But we do see the vote as a resounding success. Many of those who didn’t vote are absentee landlords and the turnout was one of the highest, ever, for a first BID vote.”

He also dismisses Mr Boyhan’s suggestion that money collected would be used simply to put up balloons and Christmas lights.

“It’s called a Business Improvement District, and the name says it all. We need, for example: one, to get retailers who are in the town to continue to trade in the town; two, to attract more businesses, promote Dún Laoghaire; three, to do a database of every empty premises, find out what’s the rates, what’s the rents, then negotiate with owners and, say, group similar shops together.”

If councillors block the proposal, Mr O’Byrne says he and other retailers will have to “look again at the idea of Dún Laoghaire being a place in which to keep running a business.” Would he pull out?

“Yes, I would have to consider that because the business would not be sustainable if things remain as they are.”

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