Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pedestrianisation of Barronstrand Street & John Roberts Square?

I seem to be on the wrong end of a lot of populist stuff right now. And here I go again! I cannot, for the life of me, understand what exactly people think will be solved by the opening of the above streets/areas to parking or traffic.

I am a shopper. I go 'to town' almost every day and I can always get parking (except at Christmas time) and I can almost always (except early mornings) get through John Roberts Square, with pram and toddler either in or out of said pram, safely and without the danger of moving traffic or even static traffic blocking views etc.

What would be different if 10 or 20 or so cars could park there, or if traffic were driving through it. I really don't think people have answered this question or thought this one through properly in their minds.
Recently some Councillors have been calling for exactly this to happen (is there an election and a populist issue in the air, I wonder?) but even they have not pointed out what the benefits would be.

I think the retailers of Waterford, for one, need to wake up and instead of knocking the city and knocking shopping (i.e. their own businesses!) here at every available opportunity they should be using every opportunity to promote shopping in the city. On the one hand, they invest their hard-earned cash in shopping promotions and advertising, then every chance they get, they lambaste that self same shopping on every public media available.

Now I have issues with the city centre, in fairness. I'm not mad about the urban design scheme in truth. But it is not the worst I seen and in the summer when the trees are in leaf it is exceedingly pleasant with some great and unique shops.

I am concerned about the lack of a night-time economy there - but Grafton Street is the same. It is a shopping street and closes down entirely at night. However, I do think that there are things that can and should be done to ensure a night time economy can work here and I have been fighting for this for years. Finally I think the penny is dropping and some pragmatism is coming into the thinking here. I know there are plans for evening activities and an easing of permission for outdoor cafe type activity. But the Council cannot do things like this alone. We need partners to work with us to create and maintain this type of activity and it won't happen overnight.

Another issue I have with the city centre is the almost complete lack of investment (with some notable exceptions) by shop owners over the past decade. What have the people who stand to benefit most from city centre trading invested? I would go so far as to argue that empty premises, rather than being rate-free, should in fact be charged double rates! That would 'encourage' the owners to ensure that properties are rented - even if, God forbid, they had to lower the rental and give a decent lease length (two issues that have been brough to my attention time and time again as mitigating severely against new and small shops in Waterford). However rates is a national issue and we cannot make this change locally.

And what about hotels - or is this the City Councils fault too? We do not have a hotel offering in Waterford on a scale to compete with that of the much smaller towns of Wexford and Kilkenny. I was in Whites Hotel in Wexford only today and it is a gorgeous hotel, which has been completely redeveloped, expanded and re-launched right in the heart of Wexford town. Why are our hotels in Waterford smaller, with lower star ratings? I am not talking about minor alterations. There is room in Waterford for a major hotel with conference facilities for 1,000 or 500 seated. You could argue, particularly in the current climate that Kilkenny might be over-supplied with hotel rooms and facilities. But you could certainly not argue that for Waterford City Centre. Oh for some investors and businesses looking to grow and build.

I guess it won't happen right now with the banks behaving like scrooge in a particularly mean spirit but the opportunity is there and it's a winner. I'm convinced of it. If you don't have facilities of that order, you are not in the (very lucrative) conference business game. And we are not.

But I have wandered off topic. Let me finish by saying that yes, we have our problems but they are no more significant than problems in any city at the moment. We should be promoting Waterford - while trying to deal with those problems and the retailers in particular should be amongst the most vocal in selling - not knocking Waterford, at least in public. Anything else is damaging their own businesses.

And if I thought that opening up the City Centre to traffic was a forward step I would fight for it tooth and nail. But it is not. We all know it. We need to build a bridge and get over it. We need to work together to fill the gaps in Waterfords offering and we need to talk ourselves up. Plenty shoppers come here from all over the South and South East. Lets 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 in Ireland! There are lots of shops, lots of opportunites - now, all we need to find is our courage?

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