Another day, another shutter is pulled down. While there has been plenty of press about derelict apartment buildings, ghost towns, empty estates, and the struggling bar trade, the realisation that Irish shopping streets are becoming something of a retail wasteland has yet to be tackled. One in five retail spaces in the capital city are now vacant. These aren't spaces in just-built developments, but existing retail spaces – shops that have closed down.
There are few incentives to starting a new business where another one has failed, and if we don't change the boomtime business model of 'sink or swim' our retail spaces will remain closed due to obstacles entrepreneurs face around costs and red tape, along with the ridiculous rents that are charged for retail space in Ireland. The most important thing right now is getting something into these spaces. A system should be in place whereby if a retail space is derelict for a certain amount of time, it MUST be filled. When that time limit expires, the local authority along with Enterprise Ireland or the local chamber of commerce and the leaseholder, building owner or developer must accept submissions for the building's use and its operation. The most practical and economically sound proposal should win out, be it a cafe, a bike shop, a gallery, a garden centre, a grocery store, or a collective of designers or artists. It would operate at reduced rent, of course, but the small investment needed must come from the individual to prevent the local authority suffering any debt. The building owner, leaseholder or developer would be happy, because at least they'd be getting some kind of rent. The until now unemployed entrepreneur has a project, a job and an income, the local authority has one less derelict building on their street, and the punter has a service and one less boarded-up mobile-phone shop to walk past.
This is happening to a degree in Dublin at the moment. Dylan Haskins, a young music promoter, activist and filmmaker has recently opened an all-ages alcohol-free space in Temple Bar called The Exchange. Two art spaces, D-Light (formerly a derelict warehouse) in the north inner city and Mill Studios (formerly a couch shop) in the south inner city offer reduced studio rent for artists, and have opened their doors on several occasions for gigs and art shows. Independent galleries and art spaces are popping up in the most unlikely of places: derelict office space owned by Johnny Ronan's Treasury Holdings is currently hosting a David La Chapelle exhibition; the Centre For Creative Practices has found a new home in the office space heartland of Pembroke Street in Dublin 2; while the much fought over Dartmouth Square in Ranelagh hosts free gigs. All these new spaces have in common is they are based firmly in the creative and artistic community. Their contribution is extremely useful, but their attendance is quite exclusive. It doesn't have to be like that.
The relinquishing of control of Irish retail spaces to non-Irish companies, in the same way that part of our recession can be blamed on the withdrawal of international companies from our economy, has to be questioned. We do not need any more Spars or mobile-phone shops or British and American clothing brands that squeeze out home-grown retailers. What we need are independent retail spaces that are born from our communities and that service our communities. The return of Paul Kelly as the head of one of the country's most iconic retailers, Brown Thomas, reinforces this realisation that Irish management generally knows what's best for Irish consumers.
One of the demographics that does seem to be intensely involved in the quick renting and opening of businesses are the African, Polish and Chinese communities. Properties on Parnell Street, Talbot Street, Moore Street and Dorset Street, to name a few, change signs regularly. Why? Because ethnic communities don't have the same access to money from friends or family as a safety net, so their need for income is immediate. With unemployment now so high, Irish people should be adapting to that mindset.
The people are there, the creativity is there, the collectives are there, the buildings are there, the desire is there and the customers are there, but the mechanism to join up all of these things isn't. It makes no sense, because the most enjoyable enterprises and spaces around the country are generally ones owned and operated by the forward-thinking creative people deeply attached to the services they are providing; our local theatres, boutiques, family run delis, independent cinemas and non-chain cafes. Now is the perfect time for something good to come of our depressed economy, even if it's short term and sporadic. It's time to give urban spaces back to the people.