Why we need to believe in the future of our towns

23 Apr 2018

Newman’s Mall and Market Street in Kinsale. Image: D Ribeiro/Shutterstock

With the rise of the regions, the future of towns and the symbiotic nature of local businesses must be protected, writes John Kennedy.

There is something very moving about walking around a country or market town early on a sun-kissed spring day as commerce flutters into life.

Running errands early on Friday last in my hometown, I observed store owners setting up their stalls for the day; putting out signs, tables and chairs; unfurling shades; and greeting one another heartily. Clearly, their spirits were lifted by a bit of sun after a long hard winter of storms and snow.

‘The cost of living here is almost 20pc lower than in Dublin. We have a young talented workforce with 50pc of the population of Cork aged under 35, and we are home to 35,000 students in institutes like CIT and UCC’

The next day, having a bit of breakfast in a local café as tourists wandered in and workers shuffled by, I paid attention to the chitter-chatter of retailers and business owners. “How are things on your side of the street?” they asked each other politely. I imagined the same conversation was happening in every town in Ireland.

And I realised I was tuning into something actually quite intimate and crucially important. This is a living breathing business network or ecosystem, and I noted the shared concern, empathy and sense of connectedness among the business owners.

No one really talks about this much but you have to remember these people, with their small businesses that may employ two, three or four people, have been in the trenches for a decade since the recession began.

Their very endurance is the symbol of their town’s endurance.

Protecting something special

Across Ireland, the shutters have gone up on countless businesses on countless streets. Often, I try to remember what was there before and the people who were there.

We can talk about digital all day, but the ringing of the tills allied with the feistiness, common sense and professionalism of local business owners can never be discounted.

If anything, Ireland’s drive for entrepreneurship needs to be regionally balanced because those tills will be kept ringing by new jobs, but also that sense of connectedness between traditional bricks-and-mortar and future digital enterprises. One can teach the other, and vice versa.

As we examine Ireland’s own endurance, written off more than a decade ago, the country has progressed and recovered and is once again an international economic curiosity.

For those of us who have endured, we still scratch our heads when people talk about the recession being over and pay rises returning. Really?

Once again, there is the sense that the same mistakes are being made as the accommodation and property crisis becomes a morality crisis, Brexit offers opportunities and dangers, and the war for foreign direct investment reaches new levels of sophistication.

Not only that, but Dublin is in danger of becoming a city apart from the rest of the nation in terms of spiralling rents, homelessness and a shortage of office space, not to mention the necessity of higher wages for mere survival. If we don’t cop ourselves on, Dublin will become a pseudo-San Francisco, with all the unfairness that entails.

Why start-ups are focusing on the future of our towns

Amidst this, there is a growing focus on our local towns, cities and communities as the economic powerhouses of the future.

In the coming week, Startup Weekend – an event normally held in up-and-coming start-up cities – will take place on Achill Island in Mayo between 27 and 29 April, with the theme centred around the future of towns.

Sponsored by Bank of Ireland, NWRA, OnePageCRM and Mayo.ie, the Pure Magic Lodge will play host to three days of building and learning.

“The aim is to get an eclectic mix of attendees – ranging from those with a technical or design background, to people with a business background – to share their ideas, form teams and work on new start-ups for 54 hours,” explained event leader and innovation community manager at Bank of Ireland’s Galway Startlab, Tracy Keogh.

The timing couldn’t be more prescient.

On Friday (20 April), it was our great pleasure to report that Cork city and its wider county is experiencing its own tech boom.

Industry body IT@Cork, which held its 21st AGM last week, said that Cork has experienced a 63pc increase in employment in tech companies in the last five years, with 13,000 workers currently employed in 61 IDA support companies in the region.

IT@Cork also revealed that Cork has more than 1m sq ft of office space coming on stream in the next 12 months, with office rentals averaging half the price of Dublin.

“The cost of living here is almost 20pc lower than in Dublin. We have a young talented workforce with 50pc of the population of Cork aged under 35, and we are home to 35,000 students in institutes like CIT and UCC,” said IT@Cork chair Caroline O’Driscoll.

Across the country, there is an opportunity to raise all boats through a delicate balance of opportunity, vision and broadband (and by avoiding the mistakes Dublin is making).

Or should I say, the city of Dublin. In the suburbs, in locations such as Dún Laoghaire, interesting things are happening. Dún Laoghaire BID, supported by Bank of Ireland, has created a new PierConnect co-working space in the heart of the town, while plans are afoot to revamp the Dún Laoghaire ferry terminal into a new digital marine hub, spending €20m and potentially generating hundreds of jobs.

Even Dublin as a region can revitalise itself and we were glad to report how on Friday, €900,000 is being made available through Smart Dublin for five critical smart city projects spanning the various city and county councils to tackle frictions such as mobility, noise and air pollution; improve water quality; employ the internet of things; and, crucially, foster greater inclusion.

Preserving a delicate balance

I have hit on the regional theme before, time and again. I recently argued how derelict industrial buildings, old schools and other unused premises could be used to foster start-ups and support entrepreneurs with a sense of community, powered by broadband, light and heat.

I pointed out how remote working and regional towns could be the perfect combination for quality of life but also staff retention as workers with families seek good schools and safe places to raise their families without disrupting their careers.

We reported how Ireland’s regions are rising through a combination of entrepreneurship and sound policy. According to TechIreland figures, Cork is producing the most tech start-ups, but Limerick got the lion’s share of funding last year. The data revealed that 283 out of 1,725 regional tech companies are led by women founders. There is clearly a lot of work to be done.

But, as I listened to the conversations of local business owners over the till last week – at least three or four in the space of 15 minutes as people popped in to grab a coffee or get some change – I realised the delicate balance that is intrinsic to the communities of our towns and cities.

It is a symbiotic relationship; everyone cares and looks out for one another, and everyone needs the other to keep on going.

Whether this is a recovery or something that will be threatened by Brexit, financial corrections or other external factors beyond our control, the future of our towns is the key to future endurance.

It is a delicate balance that must be protected and fostered. And at the heart of that is empathy.

Newman’s Mall and Market Street in Kinsale. Image: D Ribeiro/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years