One of the jewels in Kilkenny’s crown is the city’s built commercial heritage. But recently the number of business premises in the town centre that are closed and boarded up have caused alarm bells to ring for residents of the city. And they say it’s time for wake up call.
A small group of local people have come together who want to take the upset and complaints of recent times and turn it into something positive for the town.
Marie Costello has been a businesswoman in Kilkenny for many years. Now, she says, the historic heart of Kilkenny is looking pretty bad.
On Sunday, June 16, Marie took her camera and walked around the centre of the city to document the number of empty buildings there. We have printed just some of her almost 40 photographs on these pages.
“We want to help the place we love,” Marie told the Kilkenny People, “I can’t sit back and watch, this is depressing me too much, depressing me beyond belief. I invite everyone to react to those photographs in any way they want, positive or negative.”
What Marie really wants is suggestions. “Can we present Kilkenny in a better light? Make it more attractive. Where do we go from here? How do we present the buildings in the meantime?”
Khan Kiely, who runs a bookshop on James’s Street in the city centre, has teamed up with Marie in her call.
They say businesses are suffering and a rising tide will lift all ships. Shoppers need to be attracted back into the city, businesses need to be encouraged to set up here. For that to happen the town needs to improve, and that is where they are calling on the people of Kilkenny for suggestions on how to move forward.
Marie highlighted some of the problems she sees in the city: “Why have local people decided to turn their backs on Kilkenny? People are saying they have nothing to come to. When we lose a shop of the prestige of Dubray Books it is a loss, a shop of that standard won’t come back.
“Roadworks - so many disruptions with traffic detours, realignments, hasn’t really helped at all. With the new bridge people aren’t coming into town anymore,” she said.
Khan highlighted parking issues. She has recently had a customer who will phone in an order and drive past the door of her shop to take the book from Khan and hand her the money, then drive off, rather than park in town.
“I am adamant about parking. We need to give free parking for maybe a trial period, two hours, even if it’s Monday to Friday. We are going to have to offer people incentives.” She said consumers have changed and people who come in to the city to support local businesses feel like they deserve to park for free.”
Both the ladies stress the importance of looking after the small, local businesses we do have, especially in the light of difficulties experienced in the head offices of multinational chains that cause the closure of shops in Kilkenny.
Marie described the local businesses as, apart from the castle, the jewels of Kilkenny, but they are getting thin on the ground because they are not being looked after.
“I firmly believe we know the issues but there seems to be no solution to the problems. People talk but there is no action,” Khan said. “We are an attractive city and we are not capitalising on that.”
Between them Marie and Khan have started the ball rolling with suggestions on what could be done to help the city and its businesses.
Marie suggested: “We might do a competition to create art or display a famous Kilkenny hurler on a hoarding or boarded up building. They need to be maintained after they are put up.
“At the junction of John Street council need to do something with the old train station wall.
“The Abbey site should just be used for parking or greened up because we have enough shops.
“We need street ambassadors, like the tourist ambassadors the Medieval Mile Museum uses.
Khan has called for a rates freeze across the city. She describes her rates as like those she would pay on Grafton Street in Dublin, and while the valuation is outside the local council control they can reduce the multiplier, she said. Rates are a massive issue and scaring away possible new businesses.
“Why doesn’t the council ask Dunnes to contribute to one hour’s free parking in the car park? Aldi and Lidl give free parking - you have to look at the big boys and see how they behave.”
They also give examples of some of the steps taken in town they see doing well.
In the Kerry town of Listowel the story of the town was told across hoardings on empty buildings, as a tourist attraction
Close by in Killorglin the K-Fest arts festival is based in and transforms vacant shops. Gorey, in Wexford, is doing well, and has broadcast a good advert for shopping in the town on regional radio.
“Since the depression having a small business is a hand to mouth existence. That has to be seriously taken into consideration,” Khan said. It has happened for a number of reasons, globalisation, internet shopping, it’s not just Kilkenny affected.
Marie agreed. “There is very little leeway when you’re self employed, you have to put your money back into the business. I don’t think they understand that about small business. It’s very important the council remember they can’t get blood out of a stone. We need to encourage new businesses to come in.”
Khan said: “A vibrant city brings investment, keeps property prices up and brings people to the city. Everybody benefits.”
Marie said: “It can’t get worse, it has to get better. We need to get people to come back. Tell me what is going to make it attractive to make you come back in to Kilkenny?”