Why Dún Laoghaire retailers may have to get out of Dodge

As councillors vote on increasing rates, the town’s retail landscape is looking bleak

 

The Dodge City Gazette is a four-page, illustrated newsletter lampooning certain Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council officials. As these things go, it is a slick enough document.

Another leaflet shows a muscular, anthropomorphic litter bin grinning off the page. “Hi, my name is Mr Big Belly Bin,” it sneers. “And I’ve cost each ratepayer in Dún Laoghaire €5,671.”

The quality of the literature – high-grade paper; glossy – is directly proportionate to the anger of those paying for it, the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Ratepayers’ Association.

A walk quickly reveals which businesses are part of the ratepayers’ association. They are the ones with window posters declaring, “Increased rates = more closed shops = lost jobs”.

A recent survey for the association reported that 112 shops out of 400 in Dún Laoghaire are vacant. Ratepayers fear more will close if councillors vote for increases on Monday night.

Undoubtedly, the town could do with holding onto the shops it has. Vacant units dot the streets, charity shops occupy prominent spots, while the shopping centre’s upper floor looks sadly dowdy.

“The town has never looked as bad as it did this year. There are weeds everywhere,” complains Ann Joyce in Costello’s Flowers on Northumberland Avenue.

Online trade

Ten years ago she had three full-time staff. Since then, she has lost hundreds of customers. “They don’t physically come down the town,” she says. The business stays open because much of its trade is now done online.

A few streets over, Lorenzo Camplone runs the La Dolce Italia cafe with his girlfriend Nicola Buba. He says their business will not survive another rates hike. “The profit is not that great.”

Expensive parking and a zealous enforcement regime have discouraged shoppers. “Every customer says [they] don’t come in because of parking,” Camplone says.

Then he pauses, mid-sentence, as a traffic warden saunters into view outside the window and starts writing a ticket for a double-parked SUV. “I see this guy giving two or three tickets a day,” he goes on.

Shopowners obsess about the wardens. “They are hiding in the lanes and everything,” nods Jim O’Connor, a barber who has been cutting hair for three of the five decades he has lived in Dún Laoghaire.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council defends its €1.50-an-hour parking rate, saying it compares favourably with rates charged in the town’s private car parks which can be as much as €2.50 an hour.

Patrick Street is a tired-looking thoroughfare. A methadone clinic in the middle of the street is a turn-off for shoppers. “It opened without anybody knowing about it,” says Stephen Costello, the manager of Costello’s Hardware.

Drugs treatment services should be given out through a network of pharmacies around the county rather than having clients converge on a single location in Dún Laoghaire, he says.

Rates bill

Like every other business owner, Costello complains about commercial rates. He says a business could be paying €12,000 a year in rent and then face a €6,000 rates bill.

Some, however, believe Dún Laoghaire’s travails illustrate demographic change. Schools have closed and residents have moved away, says Donal Farrell, who runs a picture-framing business in the shopping centre.

“The town has changed but the retail offering hasn’t,” he says. “There was absolutely no plan for the town” and now there is a glut of retail space with too few customers.

Meanwhile, the residents who might lubricate the town’s economy are more likely to take their cars – and their money – to the large retail centres at Dundrum and Carrickmines.

Local historian Anna Scudds says this highlights a generation divide. “I’m of a generation that would shop locally. The generation after me would go to a shopping centre,” she says.

However, it could capture a different type of shopper, one more interested in the town butchers, delis and niche shops rather than spending a day in chain store after chain store in a shopping centre.

Upgraded

The council says it is working to improve the town. Laneways around Patrick Street running parallel with George’s Street have been upgraded; improvements around Cross Avenue are planned.

“Renewal of the area around Haigh Terrace and its intersection with George’s Street is planned for 2017,” says a spokeswoman, adding that the council is “very conscious” of the difficulties facing businesses.

Commercial rate increases would be kept as low as possible, the official went on. “In this regard it is worth noting that in the period 2010 to 2016 the annual rate on valuation [ARV] was reduced by 8.5 per cent.”

Sitting at a table in the nice cafe he runs on George’s Street, Derek Bennett believes a recovery is taking place, if slowly. However, greater unity is required. “Everyone is paddling their own boat,” he says.

Some technology businesses have arrived recently, bringing younger workers, with money to spend. “I feel much more comfortable with where the town is going,” says Bennett. “It could just go much further and faster.”

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