Wednesday, 4 January 2012
Is Marks and Spencer the answer to Limerick's problems?
Yet another article appeared in yesterday’s Limerick Chronicle in relation to the ongoing saga of our Opera Centre. Now that the council have purchased the site they are engaging in heating exchanges with the owner of the Parkway Valley site. Tied into this is the debate surrounding whether or not Marks and Spencer would be the appropriate anchor tenant for the Opera Centre if, as expected, planned developments of the site as a large retail development goes ahead.
I recently downloaded Mary Portas’ review of the state of retail in the UK. Before I write any more I would suggest that every developer, retailer, planner, councillor, decision maker, Tom, Dick or Harry has a bound copy of the 55 document on their person at all times. She makes sense does Mary.
One of the questions we must ask ourselves is why are the majority of those with an interest in the site so gung ho on Marks and Spencer being the salvation of Limerick City Centre’s woes. The answer lies in the concept of convenience. Shopping as we know it has changed radically over the past 30 years. Why has the Crescent Shopping Centre seen such success? Why is Dundrum still considered to be a Mecca for shoppers? Why does yet another out of town development by the Parkway make sense to a developer even in today’s climate? Why is Limerick City dying a death? The answer is convenience. We as shoppers have become accustomed to the notion of everything we need being under one roof.
Marks and Spencer for some reason is seen as the missing link in Limerick. Most of the other major brands have set up camp in the Crescent. Marks and Spencer won’t be locating in the Crescent due to site restrictions so it is well known that they are actively pursuing a location in the city centre or potentially the Parkway Valley.
During my time in Dublin and London I would have used Marks and Spencer occasionally and mostly for its food offer which is excellent. However what must be recognised is that food in M&S is not cheap. People are cash strapped at the moment and my uneducated guess is that, if they were to establish themselves in the city centre, there would be an initial rush down the aisles followed by a slow and steady downfall in footfall. I also believe that if city council bases the design of the site around the presence of a major retailer then it will have missed a fabulous opportunity. This is where Mary Portas comes in.
• Town centre vacancy rates have doubled over the last two years and total consumer spend away from our high streets is now over 50%
• In 2015 we’ll be spending more than £40 billion a year over the internet and through mobile devices
• Out-of-town developments have enjoyed positive growth rates since 2001 while town centre growth has been largely negative
• Since 2001, the number of superstores in the UK has grown by 35%, whilst all other forms of grocery outlet have declined
Fundementally what Portas points out is that how we operate as consumers has changed. We crave immediacy. We crave convenience. But strangely we also crave a sense of community. By investing in the likes of Marks and Spencer, Tesco, Lidl, Aldi and so on the money we spend does not get recycled in the local economy. Local high street businesses close resulting in less footfall on the onset of a vicious circle. We are in an age of consumerism and the recent crying out for a Marks and Spencer presence in the city is a perfect example of that. It is only a small percentage who see that the answer to Limerick’s problems does not lie in a new retail presence.
The recent success of the Milk Market is the great success story to emerge from Limerick in recent years. The reasoning for this lies in that sense of community. Local people saying hello as they nibble a freshly made sandwich or sip coffee and browse under the grand white canope and listen to locals playing live music. The atmospheric sense of community that exists on a morning or afternoon in that place is irreplacble. It certainly does not replicate in the Crescent.
Mary Portas quotes from Jane Jacobs 1961 book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from
many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows
out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting
advice from the grocer and giving advice to the
newsstand man, comparing opinions with other
customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two
boys drinking pop on the stoop, hearing about a job
from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from
Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial, but the sum
is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public
contact at the local level – most of it fortuitous, most
of it associated with errands – is a feeling for the
public identity of people, a web of public respect
and trust, and a resource in time of personal or
I sometimes get off the bus outside Dan Lawless’ florist. If he is in there is always a wave, occassionally a chat but without doubt a smile. I sometimes eat brunch in the Wild Onion. There is always a welcome (occasionally gruff), a hello and a sense of hospitality. I sometimes browse through the many delights in Country Choice and I get an immediate welcome smile. Advice on what is good is always on hand. This is what community is about and this is what a high street and town centre should be about. The major chainstores remove the individuality away from the neighbourhood.
It is not impossible to bring this sense of community back into Limerick. It is only about us reevaluating where the future of retail is going. Could it be that the future of a town like Limerick could be one which is void of any major retail presence? Could it be that a return to the old days of market trading sustaining a vibrant community is on the cards?
Last Summer, before the riots, I walked the streets of Croydon. Everywhere you look there are market stalls, independent traders, butchers and cafes. On the other side of London take a trip to Wood Green and notice the thriving local community. Wander Portobello Market on a Saturday Afternoon. Stroll through Elephant and Castle. Get immersed in the magic of Camden. It can well be argued that the successes of these markets are down to footfall and population but they are also down to the sense of community, the excitement of the atmosphere and the sense of fulfillment as you people watch over a coffee.
Before Limerick City Council makes a fundemental error using short sighted strategies to possible tobble external developers with county land they must stand back, read the likes of Mary Portas and think about what is coming down the tracks. Limerick is known for its people. The city must be given back to the people. Marks and Spencer may just have a place in the county afterall.