Kate O’Neill of the Silver Trout, a jewellery store on South King Street, is not happy. And she’s not the only one. The petition she started with a small group of other city-centre business owners now has more than 500 signatures. The aim?
They all want to leave, they say, the Dublin Business Improvement District (BID), or, as it’s also known post rebrand, DublinTown.
Set up in January 2008, BID is a company that takes a mandatory levy from businesses on 115 streets in Dublin 1 and Dublin 2. At the moment, they pay just under 3 percent of the rates they pay to Dublin City Council. In exchange, the not-for-profit is tasked “with creating a welcoming and economically viable city environment”.
It has not always had unanimous support. In a January 2012 poll of the more than 2,500 businesses that fall in the BID catchment area, 1,063 voted in favour of keeping the BID, while 511 voted against it. Roughly 1,000 didn’t take part at all.
Arguably, current malcontents could be those who voted against the company back then. But Brendan Fagan of Stock on King Street believes that it’s not just that. For the last year or so, the tide has begun to turn against DublinTown, he said.
He voted in favour of the city scheme in 2007 and 2012, but has signed the petition. DublinTown isn’t doing its job, he thinks. It may be good at marketing, he says, but it doesn’t liaise with the council often enough to keep the city clean.
The company does seem to have shifted focus from housekeeping to marketing. In 2009, BID spent €658,000 on cleaning and maintenance in the city, while last year it spent just €272,000. The opposite trend can be seen for the marketing department with a spend of €247,000 in 2009, which increased to €1.2 million last year.
“They are not in touch with people,” Fagan says. Take last year’s Christmas market at Stephen’s Green. DublinTown displayed a “lack of co-operation and proper manners” when it didn’t discuss this plan with its members, Fagan says.
“Some good might come of the petition, as business people now have to get self-organised,” he adds.
Time for an Audit?
Councillors have started to rally in support of the rebels.
Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn has put forward a motion to the council to carry out a complete audit of the company.
In an email asking councillors to support this motion, opponents of DublinTown highlight their concerns about the company accounts presented at the last annual general meeting (AGM). Among these concerns was the CEO’s failure to disclose who gave the company €446,961 in sponsorship money last year. (A spokeswoman for DublinTown simply says the money simply came from various event sponsors.)
Flynn has said that it’s strange for Dublin City Council to collect rates on behalf of DublinTown, which is a private company, when the council doesn’t know exactly where the €2.2 million collected since its founding has been spent.
At the most recent Dublin City Council financial committee meeting in City Hall, Flynn called DublinTown’s threat to publish the names of non-payers in Stubbs Gazette bullying. However, the council has taken seven cases to court on behalf of DublinTown in the last four years.
The Common Good?
Supporters of DublinTown say that if some businesses are allowed to opt out of the levy, the organisation wouldn’t work the way it was meant to.
As chairman of the George’s Street Business Association, David Baker of Decwell’s Hardware spent years trying to collect money for the Christmas lights in area, which are not provided by the council.
“When it came to collecting money, there were some who paid and some who didn’t, but BID meant everyone had to pay . . . the petition is about people who don’t want to pay,” he says.
Graffiti removal, additional street furniture and hanging baskets – DublinTown does a lot, he says.
“We get more value for money for €500 a year [from DublinTown] than from Dublin City Council for €16,000 a year,” he says. “I would be depressed if it disappeared.”
Darragh Buckley of FX Buckley butchers, which has two locations in DublinTown’s district, feels much the same way. He also emphasises the importance of attracting customers by promoting the city centre in the same way shopping centres promote themselves.
Looking to the future, Buckley says DublinTown will begin to brand each area of the city: into cultural quarters, shopping quarters and so on.
Buckley says he understands that businesses are trying to spend less, but fears that a short-term savings could lead to a long-run loss, if the city doesn’t evolve correctly.
DublinTown said it couldn’t comment on the petition, as it has not seen it.