Kieran’s Lord Mayor’s Column, The Echo, 20 January 2024

Open for Business:

Cork is open for business and partnership between all stakeholders is crucial going forward. As citizens we need to keep those messages or narratives moving forward for 2024.

In the lead-up to Christmas the support by Corkonians for the traders of Cork was impressive. There were large crowds shopping, attending pantos, engaging in pubs and restaurants. A big thank you to everyone who supported the message of “shop local” this Christmas.

Independent small medium sized businesses are the backbone of the business in Cork and keep the trading environment in Cork unique. Cork has one of the highest proportion  of owner led offerings in the country. More than 90% of businesses operating in Cork City employ less than 10 employees and it is these businesses that are the foundation of Cork City’s economy. It is Cork City’s entrepreneur’s and SME’s that will play a key role in achieving Cork’s future vision as well. 

Early reports from some traders I have spoken to noted it was a bumper Christmas and even groups such as SHARE reveal larger numbers of people giving generosity more so than ever before. Such positivity is to be welcomed and such momentum on the topic of “shop local” needs to be maintained though in 2024.

Local and National Levers:

The closure of certain restaurants in the past two weeks has brought much sadness and reaction across the media. It is easy to pass the buck on who is to blame. Rarely is there a City Council meeting in City Hall where the challenges of energy costs, insurance, wages, warehousing or deferral of tax debts arising from Covid, rents and rates are raised, and my colleagues call for incentives and more partnership with traders at City Hall level and at national level.

It is important to note that energy costs, insurance, and wages, and deferral of tax debts are in the hands of Central Government and it is very important that they keep not only listening to the ground but also responding to lessen financial challenges. In that regard I welcome the intervention of the Minister of Finance Minister Michael McGrath to sitting down with the city restaurants affected by closure in the past two weeks, and learnings, incentive schemes and appropriate actions taken.

Cork City Council Supports:

From a City Council perspective, there are several supports in place. The income from commercial rates represents 38% of the total income of the City Council. It is a highly important income stream for the City Council. Indeed, up to 80% of the city’s rate payers – paying €4,000-€10,000 a year -also avail of an annual 1.5% rates refund scheme run by the City Council. The extended rates incentive scheme is as per the previous scheme, aimed at SMEs.  Contact the Council’s rates department if you are part of the 80%.

On a day-to-day basis, Cork City’s Local Enterprise Office – based at Cork City Hall– also offer a range of supports including business advice, training, mentoring and a range of grants to hundreds of new and more mature businesses across retail and the commercial sector.

“Business Development in Cork: An Entrepreneur’s Guide, 2023” was the first of its kind nationally and provides an extensive overview of the range of supports available from key stakeholders including Cork City Council, Cork County Council, Enterprise Ireland, The Local Enterprise Offices, Cork BIC, University College Cork, and Munster Technological University.   There is a drive in Cork that the drive is there to break silos between organisations and development business ecosystems. That is something that needs to be pursued more. New sectors are rapidly emerging in our city.

Investment Continues:

It is also important to note the continued investment into Cork and it is important the narratives do not frighten investors off. Commercial confidence in Cork remains healthy despite the era of higher interest rates and increased cost of living which is impacting householder and business spending in this country and across Europe.

 In recent months, acclaimed fashion retailers such as Flannels and Mango opened up stores on St Patricks Street while the former Debenhams block was bought by the Irish company behind the hugely successful Elverys Sports. The new Arc Cinema at The Gate at North Main Street is impressive in its investment.

Last year, a newly refurbished Easons also opened and Cork’s first branch of Krispy Kreme following on from global brands Dune and North Face. This helped support a drop in the city’s commercial vacancy rate.

Furthermore, private sector investors continue to develop student accommodation in the city centre where UCC is due to begin construction of the Cork University Business School (CUBS) and a new Premier inn hotel is also due to open in the coming weeks. Interest in the Cork hospitality sector is proving resilient with the Imperial Hotel being sold for €25 million last year and a new hotel on Camden Quay also due to open later this year. 

City Co-Ordination Strategies:

Meanwhile, Cork City Centre is receiving record levels of investment from government agencies and from central government with multi-million projects such as the MacCurtain Street upgrade being delivered while work is due to begin on a refurbished Bishop Lucey Park and the wider transformation of Cork’s medieval quarter, the Grand Parade Quarter.

Cork City Council is also implanting a city centre strategy that is based on best in class international practice. This has included the pedestrianisation of up to 17 streets, widespread outdoor dining, greening  and the biggest investment in public art ever seen in the city. There has been a very large and positive engagement by citizens in such projects.

Cork City Council also have a City Centre Co-ordinator who regularly partners with traders. A night-time economy adviser is also now in place.

The most recent census showed that Cork city centre is the area of greatest population growth in the city – a statistic that augurs well for customer demand in the city’s retail, hospitality and cultural sectors.

Yes, there are many challenges but there are also many opportunities that require mining down into through partnership between all stakeholders.