Expert view: How Patrick's Street recovers from pandemic era shop closures

Expert view: How Patrick's Street recovers from pandemic era shop closures
Patrick's Street in Cork.Picture Denis Minihane.

THE closure of Debenhams and the appointment of provisional liquidators to Oasis and Warehouse has shaken the city, with fears for the future of St Patrick St in particular.

Economists are warning that Ireland, and the global economy as a whole, is headed for recession.

Here in Cork, experts say the landscape of the city will significantly change in the weeks and months ahead as it adapts to changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and the closure of businesses here, with calls for more support and flexibility from central Government and local authorities.

The recovery could see the very fabric of St Patrick St, where Debenhams held a prime position in the former Roches Stores building, change significantly.

Denis Linehan, an expert in urban spaces and senior lecturer at the Department of Geography at University College Cork, said city planners will now need to be more flexible about the types of businesses that can operate on the historic street, to help the city bounce back after the pandemic.

Mr Linehan said the news Debenhams was to close its stores was shocking for employees and families affected.

Patrick's Street in CorkPicture Denis Minihane.
Patrick's Street in CorkPicture Denis Minihane.

However, high streets around the world have been experiencing changes in recent years, particularly with increasing trends towards online shopping.

Mr Linehan said Cork City will “bounce back”.

He highlighted how the city had been seriously impacted by the polio epidemic in the late 1950s, while there was somewhat of a “golden era” for St Patrick St in the 1960s.

“Everything was closed [during the polio epidemic]. People were terrified and were affected very, very deeply. National newspapers were reporting on calls to stop trains to Cork. The city was on its knees, but it got back together,” he said.

He acknowledged the Covid-19 pandemic would cause an immediate shock, but in the medium to short term, retail units will return.

The pandemic would force councils to think about things like rates, while local businesses could fill the gaps left by retailers such as Debenhams, he said.

“Internationally, there is good evidence that when high streets open up to local businesses they thrive again,” he said, adding that “planners will have to be more flexible in the short term”.

This could include opening spaces for creative/entrepreneurial business, play spaces, and spaces for gigs.

He said there will also be questions arising about whether certain buildings have the same value.

“We’re not used to epidemics in our lifetime, but historically cities are used to dealing with disease. The city will bounce back,” he said.

Meanwhile, Cork Business Association chief executive Lawrence Owens warned that there will be more business casualties in Cork if the right supports are not put in place to help the sector to recover.

Mr Owens said that while “no one has a crystal ball and knows where we are going and where Cork will be”, it is critical that supports are now put in place for businesses.

He said these should include a moratorium on rates, rather than a deferral, as well as changes to water charges and Vat.

Debenhams, St Patrick Street, Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins
Debenhams, St Patrick Street, Cork.Pic; Larry Cummins

The CBA chief said the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak would be felt for many years and stressed that business “need tangible, practical supports on a scale we have never seen before.”

“We simply don’t know what’s ahead, what I do know is a lot of businesses are ready and waiting to get back to business but need support to allow them to trade.

“It is time for practical, actual, realistic support. If we don’t do that, there will be more casualties,” he said.

Mr Owens said the reality is that the city would have to change how it markets itself and encourages people to shop, stressing that things would not return to “normal” for some time.

“The fabric of any environment, any city, will be dictated from a public health perspective,” said Mr Owens.

He also said that when businesses do reopen, it will be staggered.

“Social distancing will be part of our lives for a while. Public safety has to be number one.”

Mr Owens said that the customer mindset will have changed and businesses will have to ensure the customer is “safe, looked after, and protected”.

The new Cash and Company premises at St. Patrick's Street, Cork in 1927
The new Cash and Company premises at St. Patrick's Street, Cork in 1927

The Cork Business Association is working on a campaign to encourage people to shop locally online, with businesses offering online shopping using the hashtag #shopcorkonline. The measure is aimed at helping local businesses find new ways to reach customers.

While Mr Owens said things have changed, he pointed to the fact that Cork has been “very resilient over the years” and has overcome serious problems in the past, stressing that “we’re all in this together”.

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