As general manager of the Absolute Hotel in the heart of Limerick, Donnacha Hurley has seen firsthand how the city’s traders – shop-owners, restaurants, cafés and pubs – have grappled with the unprecedented challenges of the past 15 months.
Now, as they begin to reopen their doors and cautiously welcome customers back to their premises, many have, according to Hurley, undergone a paradigm shift.
“As we emerge into this new era, it has created significant challenges and opportunities. There is a painful duality, where you have some businesses coming to the end of their life cycle while others emerge,” Hurley said.
“The emergence of ‘online’ has significantly impacted the traditional retailer. However, retail remains an important function of the city centre and a major attractor for people.
“Going forward, to enable the city to prosper, it must be supported by a broad mix of uses that will increase footfall, dwell time and economic and social activity during the day and into the evening.
“Placemaking around pedestrian zones in how our public realms are designed will help increase dwell time and will be fundamental to the feel of our city’s public spaces.
“The experience economy in driving the city centre as a place for leisure, entertainment and non-retail experiences will inevitably have a positive knock-on effect on retail.”
Hurley was recently appointed as the new president of Limerick Chamber of Commerce, taking over the role from David Jeffreys, his predecessor.
“The idea of ‘shop local’, ‘shop Limerick’ is a strong theme for us all to support,” Hurley said.
“Lean On Me, a recent initiative, demonstrated a proof of concept whereby over €100,000 was raised to help local businesses cover their bills through the purchase of vouchers. It was done completely voluntarily, through word-of-mouth and goodwill.”
The success of Lean on Me pointed to a “huge appetite” to support local businesses, he said.
“The pandemic has re-energised the shop local movement. Local businesses still need to get online and click-and-collect was a huge success for many,” Hurley said.
“The current delays with customs, shipping and general disruption to supply chains have meant that people are more keen to buy from local retailers as they have direct access to them.
“Additionally, aside from looking after the needs of our local citizens, Limerick needs to be positioned to attract visitors to come and stay.
“Traditionally, Limerick has struggled as a domestic leisure destination more because of reputation than there being a lack of amazing experiences, according to Hurley.
“At this stage, a lot of work is actually coming together. We have seen the inclusion of Limerick as a Fáilte Ireland Gateway City to the Wild Atlantic Way as well as Limerick City and County Council developing the positioning branding of Limerick city as Atlantic Edge, European Embrace,” he said.
“As we go further into the economic re-opening, we have also seen the impact that outdoor dining has had in changing the feel of the city.
Fáilte Ireland’s outdoor dining scheme, administered through the local authority, was a welcome initiative, Hurley said.
The €200,000 scheme will involve improvements to Bedford Row and Thomas Street in the city centre, both of which have already been pedestrianised. Both will get new weather-proofing additions to facilitate year-round outdoor dining.
“People, who may not have come into town for many months, are now beginning to re-engage,” Hurley said.
“This represents a great opportunity for businesses but only if they get the offering right. As always, there is a risk involved in developing a new concept, but there is also a great opportunity to develop something that locals need and want to support.
“My expectations for the city are that — while we will still have to go through a tough transition for some time as we work through this paradigm change in our relationship with the city — my hope is that we will eventually emerge in a better position than we ever have in living memory.
“Limerick has always talked about big strategic plans, but there is a palpable sense of excitement that businesses and brands can capture a new inherent dynamic and energy. The city will have to evolve, but we will emerge better on the other side — more sustainable for the future.”
Limerick Chamber of Commerce has a clear vision for a vibrant city with global ambition, recognised as the proactive and collaborative driver of economic growth, according to Hurley.
Representing 420 members and supporting 50,000 jobs, the chamber recently appointed Indecon, the independent economic research organisation, to complete a new report.
The Future Development of Limerick City benchmarked Limerick against other cities in Ireland.
Published in June, it found that initiatives promoting a “liveable city centre” would be essential for the future development of Limerick.
Recommendations outlined in the report included the acceleration of key projects in the Limerick 2030 Economic and Spatial Plan, and the introduction of a “citizens dashboard”, which would provide transparency on the progress of important projects.
The chamber’s decision to commission the report was driven by a “sense of urgency” among the business community in Limerick regarding the need to protect the city’s future.
“The report is independent, credible, and a warts-and-all review by Indecon of the present situation of Limerick’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities,” Hurley said.
“It delivers a roadmap for developing a thriving sustainable Limerick city, and all of this against the backdrop of the Covid crisis. Put simply, initiatives that promote vital liveable city centres are essential,” Hurley said.
“Liveability is key to arresting city-centre decline. It is also important to highlight that we see a strong and vibrant city centre, enabling a similarly strong and vibrant hinterland. One will feed off the other in a strong symbiotic relationship.”
Trading through the tough time: high street views
Chris O’Meara, operations manager, The Cornstore and Coqbull restaurants
“The pandemic has hit us hard, just like every other business, but we diversified. We kept our doors open and all our key staff fully employed. That is something to be proud of and it wouldn’t have been possible without our dedicated and outstanding team.
“We opened our doors over 11 years ago at The Cornstore where we currently employ 30. That will go to 40 when we’re fully open. Our Coqbull brand has two sites in Limerick, employing 45. We also have two more sites in Cork, employing about 80, plus six sites in London, employing 240 at present.
“We have built a loyal customer base over many years and they have supported us completely during this difficult period. We are so confident for the future as Limerick has so much to offer on all levels for its people and visitors alike.
“We have diversified again for this period of outdoor dining. We have been bold and brave in investing in our outside areas.
“Transforming our Cornstore garden from a vacant lot is testament to our desire to keep the show going and give Limerick what it deserves — a vibrant city centre with options for all in hospitality and, just as important, retail.
“The Limerick local authority has to be commended on its approach to outdoor dining and the current assistance given to the hospitality sector. While more is needed, it has been a great start. The future is bright. If you don’t believe that in business, you’ve failed already.”
Frank O’Mahony, managing director, O’Mahony’s Booksellers
A substantial web presence since 2003, and a surge in interest in reading during lockdown, meant that O’Mahony’s Booksellers was positioned better than most for the pandemic.
“The family company was founded by my grandfather in 1902 at 120 O’Connell Street and we still operate out of this location, in a much enlarged premises,” Frank O’Mahony, managing director at O’Mahony’s Booksellers, said.
In all, the business employs 100 people, including 15 seasonal workers, at its original premises on O’Connell Street and additional outlets at the University of Limerick and NUI Galway and in Ennis, Co Clare, and Tralee, Co Kerry.
“We are the biggest supplier of school books in the country and probably the biggest library supplier,” O’Mahony said. “Last year, our web sales at omahonys.ie increased by a massive 163 per cent. Media recommendations and word-of-mouth, particularly during the first lockdown, saw book sales increase across the board.”
The business is known for its in-store events, ranging from book signings and readings to children’s book festivals. “We are focused on customer experience and see interaction as really important,” O’Mahony said.
“Web sales have continued to hold up and I am optimistic that, from September on, retail will come back into fashion as more people are vaccinated.”
Paul Ryan, Duo
''I set up DUO in 2018, with the idea to combine the experience of going to a café with retail. Duo is retail and coffee combined, with a focus on sustainability at the core of everything we do. The store opened in October 2018. Since day one, we’ve built up a local customer base in Limerick.
“Having social media as our core communication tool with our customers, we have been able to go from strength to strength.
“In March 2020, when the lockdown happened, we had to close our store and make the switch online to duoireland.com, like many other businesses. Since launching our website, we have been able to reach new customers all over Ireland, who have been following us on social media and watched our business grow over the last three years. We now deliver all over Ireland, with all of our packaging plastic free.
“We are currently moving from our original 400 sq ft store on Denmark Street to a new 2,000 sq ft premises on Sarsfield Street, which should be opening at the end of the summer. We are undergoing a big fit-out for our new location, which is really exciting for us as a business. We can't wait to be able to share this space with our customers in Limerick."