Traders in Waterford city centre have been accused by a prominent local public representative of failing to invest in their properties, so that they might attract more custom and reap a better financial dividend.
“Apart from a few notable exceptions there has been a complete lack of investment by shop owners over the past decade”, Independent City Councillor Mary Roche complained this week.
And decrying the growing number of empty business premises in evidence, she argued that the owners should be charged double rates in order to “encourage them” to lower their charges and grant longer leases if that’s what is necessary to get them occupied.
She said those two factors – high rent and short leases – were mitigating severely against new and small shops in Waterford.
Furthermore, the outspoken councillor voiced criticism of the city’s hotel standards, saying they didn’t match up to those in much smaller urban centres like Kilkenny and Wexford.
Citing White’s Hotel in Wexford as having been expanded, redeveloped and “gorgeous”, she wondered why Waterford’s hotels were smaller, with lower star ratings. “There is room in Waterford for a major hotel with conference facilities for maybe 1,000 people seated”, she asserted.
“You could argue, particularly in the current economic climate, that Kilkenny might be over-supplied with hotel rooms and facilities, but you certainly couldn’t claim the same for Waterford city centre”.
Lamenting an absence of investors and businesses “looking to build and grow”, she guessed it wouldn’t happen right now with the banks “behaving like a particularly mean spirited scrooge”.
“But”, she insisted, “the opportunity is there and I’m convinced it’s a winner. If you don’t have facilities of that order you are not in the very lucrative conference business game. And we are not”.
Regarding rental charges, Cllr Roche has a supporter in Sinn Fein City Council colleague David Cullinane. He said local auctioneers and property owners had a direct responsibility to aid struggling retailers by reducing rental charges which in some instances were “massive”.
Cllr Cullinane said there was also a need for increased parking capacity with improved public transport, including park-and-ride facilities.
On the other hand, Cllr Roche, who would like to see development of a “night time economy” in the city centre and shopkeepers “talking up their business instead of portraying a negative image”, maintained she seldom had any difficulty getting parking space when she ventured “into town”.
On the need “to talk ourselves up”, she has this to say: “Plenty shoppers come here from all over the south and south east. Let us not run them out of town altogether for their temerity. We have the largest river island outside Dublin. We’re getting a new Penneys. The Book Centre has to be one of the greatest shops of its kind in Ireland. There are lots of shops and lots of opportunities – all we need is to find our courage”.