‘The city is dead and this will bury it’, said Limerick’s Milk Market manager of the resurrected Parkway Valley development that is to include a flagship M&S store. Who’s going to revitalise the city - and crucially when, asks Anne Sheridan
“THE HORSE has bolted,” said councillor Michael Sheahan.
Despite claims in the aftermath of the Marks & Spencer announcement for Limerick last week that there are “significant planning obstacles” in the face of building the €150m Parkway Valley site on the Dublin Road, the reality appears to be to the contrary.
Belfast based and Indian born developer Suneil Sharma has some three and a half years left to build the mammoth shopping centre within the current confines of the planning application, approved by Limerick County Council.
Now, after the announcement by M&S that they have signed up to the development in principle, subject to planning, there is more impetus than ever to raise this “skeleton of metal” from the ground.
“I think it’s going to be a major blow and crisis for the city,” said Cllr Sheahan, “but if it’s a fait accompli, then we have to accept it.”
“But the people who have lived under this monstrosity for the past few years will have to be considered if it’s going ahead. What about their quality of life throughout years of construction?”
In the face of retail strategies asserting Limerick city’s top tier importance in the Mid-West, and countless visionary reports such as Limerick 2030, “officials have been left with egg on their face”, he said.
David O’Brien, manager of the Milk Market, said “the city is dead as it is, this will bury it and put the final nail in the coffin.”
“The city’s supremos have to fight this. Marks & Spencer is a fantastic brand, but if they don’t come in to the city centre they should be discouraged.
“Equally, it’s interesting that the story was announced the same day they closed four other stores around the country. Are strings being pulled? Are we being used as puppets, in the sense of, ‘here’s the good story, here’s the bad story’, and maybe nothing is going to happen here. Maybe this is just another one of those nudges.”
Former Mayor of Limerick, Independent councillor John Gilligan, is also nervous about wholeheartedly welcoming any jobs boost created by the centre - up to 1,000 according to Mr Sharma - due to the potential displacement of jobs in the city. With up to 50 retailers expected to be signed up, how many of these already have a place in the city and may be forced to decide to axe the less profitable base? Retailers in the city, as well as pubs and restaurants, cannot afford another exodus of shoppers to the Dublin Road or Dooradoyle.
“People can still only eat the one dinner every day. They’re not going to eat two just because we have a Marks & Spencer’s,” said Gilligan.
The continued focus and hype surrounding the British store is detracting from many real issues that need to be addressed, he believes.
“Retail isn’t the be all and end all. What we need is more jobs for people in the city, so that they have the disposable income to live in the city and spend in the city,” he said.
“But Marks & Spencer could stabilise the city centre, and we shouldn’t give up hope that this could happen down the line. There is a long way to go yet before Marks & Spencer move in anywhere.”
Fianna Fail deputy Niall Collins says he too is concerned about its impact on the city, but welcomed the announcement. He said it will provide the public with greater choice, “clear up a derelict gateway site” to the city, and will create jobs. “It’s a good news story,” he said.
But Limerick Chamber, among others, is hoping that the plan, and the crucial M&S deal, isn’t a fait accompli.
Retail Excellence Ireland say they don’t believe Marks & Spencer are aware of the opportunities available to them in Limerick city centre.
Chief executive David Fitzsimons said he believes the significant plans to revive the city centre, including the much-awaited and long heralded redevelopment of the Arthur’s Quay shopping centre, will provide adequate space for retailers requiring a large retail footprint.
“I know fundamentally well that they (M&S) haven’t been offered a deal with regard to the city centre.
“Within the next two months there will be an investment strategy launched within Limerick by the town team that will outline to potential retail and hospitality investors the vision for the city, the opportunity within the city, and also the incentive to come to the city, and that hasn’t been documented yet. I don’t believe anything as of yet has been presented to Marks & Spencer’s.”
Maria Kelly, of Limerick Chamber, urged caution, saying “we can’t over-react to the news.”
“It is positive that Marks & Spencer is looking at Limerick, but I don’t think Parkway Valley is by any means a definite. We believe that Marks & Spencer should be looking at the city centre and not at anything on the outskirts,” she said.
However, while Marks & Spencer has examined locations in the city, this is the second occasion within five years that they have signed up to take a flagship store in an out-of-town suburban shopping centre.
In 2009, An Bord Pleanala turned down a major extension to the Crescent Shopping Centre, as part of a €72m development.
At that time, the city council lodged a 21-page submission in which they stated that Limerick County Council in granting planning permission for the development had not adhered to their development plan policy by not assessing the vitality and viability of the centre in considering the application.
They also claimed that the plans to extend the Crescent Shopping Centre contravened the retail strategy plan for the mid-west drawn up six years previously.
Marks & Spencer expressed disappointment with that ruling, saying: “Currently, there are no suitable sites for M&S in Limerick city centre, so we won’t be in a position to open a store in the area in the foreseeable future.”
Four years on - in spite of the council’s acquisition of the Opera centre site for €12.5m - and there are still no sites ready to be occupied by any major retailer.
In an interview with this newspaper just last week, Tom Enright, the new economic manager at City Hall, conceded this drawback.
“Currently, the only development which has planning permission that can accommodate them is the Parkway Valley.
“Having said that, we hope to have a planning application presented to the City Council towards the end of this year for a new retail centre in and around Arthur’s Quay. That would provide a real alternative potential for Marks and Spencer to locate in Limerick,” Mr Enright added.
When Limerick City Council bought the Opera site nearly two years ago, the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan sang a tune of change that was going to come.
“The biggest regeneration challenge in Limerick is to regenerate the city centre. We were afraid the Opera site would go to a developer who would sit on it for 20 or 30 years and we’d be left with all this dereliction, with no possibility of developing it.”
How long more do we have to wait?