CONVERTING empty commercial premises to residential use could help tackle the double problem of high levels of vacant properties and a lack of people living in town and village centres in West Limerick.
And councillors from the Newcastle West Municipal District intend to raise the matter at a future meeting of Limerick City and County Council and call on the government to develop a scheme which would achieve this.
But a new unit which is to be set up by the council and called the City and Town Development Unit will help revitalise towns, councillors were assured.
“There are only about five people living in the Square in Newcastle West,” Cllr Jerome Scanlan said. “We have to incentivise people to come back into living in the square.”
Councillors were told that vacancy levels in Newcastle West were running at about 17% but Cllr Jerome Scanlan challenged that, saying it was much higher at 30%.
“None of us has an expectation that all will be occupied by businesses in the future,” he said. “There are a lot of people who would gladly live in Newcastle West if the living conditions were acceptable. And the same was true in Dromcollogher and Glin.”
Cllr Liam Galvin, Mayor of Limerick City and County, said “very few families” now live on the Main St in Abbeyfeale. “Whether it is led by the department or by local authorities, the sooner those commercial premises are brought back into residential use, the better,” he said.
“During the Celtic Tiger era, people moved out of our towns,” Cllr Seamus Browne said. And he argued for a tax incentive scheme to renovate, or in many cases, to rebuild properties “to get people back living in our towns and villages.” But he argued that any such scheme would need to be “very very targeted to the small operator.”
“We need to be more imaginative,” he said.
Tax incentives had become a dirty word during the boom, Cllr John Sheahan said, when people ran amok with holiday homes but he argued that it was possible to devise a tax incentive scheme which would make it attractive for people to off-load property and for investors to come in. And he proposed that they call on the government to come up with such a scheme. “Whether we like it or not, all these empty commercial properties will not return to commercial use,” he said.
The new City and Town Development Unit which is to be established by the council will co-ordinate and promote schemes aimed at revitalising town centres as well as the city centre and improving their appearance.
One of the schemes already in place is the Business and Retail Incentive Scheme which allows a tax rebate against fit-out of start up businesses. But Newcastle West councillors were told, only six businesses had been approved for the scheme in Newcastle West so far and there had been no applications from Abbeyfeale.
Cllr Seamus Browne, while welcoming the extension of the scheme throughout the county, said that to be effective, the percentages needed to be tweaked for the small rate payers.
There had been no application either for the Love Your Street scheme, which provides grants to improve the visual appearance of key streets in county towns as well as in the city centre. But Mary Hayes of the Economic Development and Planning Department said. “We would ask the communities to come forward with their proposals for the scheme. We are finding on the ground that it does require promotion from the council side.”
The scheme provides €1000 or 50% of the cost of works per premises and works can included painting in a co-ordinated colour palette, signage, window boxes and street furniture. However, the entire street must applyl in order to get maximum impact.
Cllr Michael Collins said that he had worked with one particular street in Newcastle West but because two property owners could not be traced or persuaded to join in, the project feel assunder. There needs to be more flexibility, he argued.
“The issue of vacancy is a difficult one. The appearance of the buildings is an issue also. It can make a contribution to addressing vacancy,” Mr Daly said.
Ms Hayes said that other initiatives included Creative Limerick which encourages landlords to allow pop-up shops or incubator units.
Last month, the Limerick Leader reported that a grant had been received under another scheme, REDZ, forimprovement works in Maiden Street, while some funds could also be drawn down from the national Town and Village Renewal Scheme.