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Is the recovery finally gathering pace in the Midlands? The retailers of Athlone weigh in...

Some long-established businesses say there’s little optimism out there, but others say that things are finally beginning to look a little brighter.

THE MIDLANDS WAS among the regions worst hit by the effects of the economic downturn… And — like similarly sized towns all over Ireland — Athlone endured a raft of business closures in the years following the property and banking crash of 2008.

CSO statistics for that year showed Co Westmeath was hardest hit nationally by the decline in sales taxes, with the amount of VAT dropping by almost 20 per cent compared to the previous year.

More recently published figures — on Live Register numbers and insolvencies — show the economic indicators heading the right way once again.

But how are businesses in Athlone feeling about the future — less than two weeks’ away from the Budget?

[TheJournal.ie]

TheJournal.ie went for a walk through the centre of Athlone this week to see how businesses are faring now…

According to one retail manager’s entirely unscientific “bag count” method, a fragile recovery in the town is now beginning to gain momentum.

But another, long-established businessman worried that the new water charges would suck money out of consumers’ pockets, and warned of further tough times ahead.

The Men’s Draper…

[TheJournal.ie]

Bretts on Sean Costello Street has been in business for the last 73 years.

Billy Brett hasn’t been involved quite that long… But he has been manning the register at the store for the last half-century — and says that, no, there’s not all that much to be optimistic about at the moment.

The problem is your overheads haven’t come down. We’re still being charged the same pre-recession rates.

[TheJournal.ie]

“It doesn’t make sense… People are trying to tell you the country’s picking up… I certainly hear that it’s picking up in Dublin alright but then again you have the population there.

The last recession was nothing like this in that there was still money being circulated. There’s nothing being circulated now at all.

In terms of measures that could help small business owners, “it’s a matter of leaving money in people’s pockets” Billy says…

They will work us out of recession.

The Health Store

[TheJournal.ie]

Una Reynolds helps her daughter run the Au Naturel store on Payne’s Lane in the centre of Athlone.

The shop celebrated a decade on the go in March of this year — so they’ve been through the bad times and the good in the last ten years.

We did hit rock bottom… But we struggled on. We took in less money, less take-home pay for ourselves, cut down on staff… But things have picked up

An established base of older customers helped sustain the business through the tough times, Una explains.

There would be retired people that the recession didn’t affect that much. But the younger people coming in, maybe looking for things for children heading back to school – they couldn’t afford it.

That trend’s now beginning to reverse itself, Una says… Business during the back-to-school period this year was back up on a par with the pre-downturn years.

We did as good as we did in the good times… Well, near enough.

The Cake Decorator 

[TheJournal.ie]

Fraser O’Reilly runs the ‘Decobake‘ opposite Golden Island Shopping Centre.

The cake decoration and party supplies shop is one of five outlets around the country, with sister stores in Clane, Dublin, Galway in Limerick.

They set up business in Athlone three years ago. And while Fraser says it has been “very hard” for retailers in the last few years, the nature of Decobake’s business means its well-placed to thrive in a time when families are watching their pennies.

It has been very up and down in the last month. But that would probably be a normal state of affairs with people going back to school… People don’t really have the money anymore around that time.

That said…

A lot of people, because of the recession — when they’re doing their weekly shopping and there’s going to be a birthday, instead of buying a cake from a supermarket, mums – and a lot of dads –  they come in and they say ‘I think I’m going to try and make a cake’… That’s where we come in.

The Computer Fixer

[TheJournal.ie]

Around the corner from Fraser, Muhammad Islam is dealing with a steady stream of customers and broken hard-drives from behind the counter at B-Tech C0mputers. The store – one of four around the country – has been in business since August of last year, and so far everything’s been going to plan at the John Broderick Street outlet.

“Word of mouth” is all-important when people are trusting you with their laptops and devices, according to Muhammad.

People have too many options. They can go to Argos to buy a laptop — so why do they need to come here? The reason to come here is that it’s a local shop and if something happens they can bring it back and we fix it ourselves — that’s what people really like.

The Alterations Service

 [TheJournal.ie]

Finally, just a few doors down from Muhammad, store manager Leila Lynch reports that September has been a “great month” for the Zipyard alterations service in Athlone.

We’re only open here a year. We’re open since last June, so we’ve very positive feedback since we’ve opened.

There are over 20 Zipyard ’boutique alterations’ stores north and south of the border, and – like the cake decorators around the corner – Leila says their business is also somewhat insulated from the effects of the recession.

People are more inclined to look in their wardrobes now… A coat, for example — coming into winter now you’re talking €200 for a nice coat. We have so many alterations for coats now at the minute because it’s way cheaper to get them altered or restyled than to go out and spend more money unnecessarily.

Away from the Zipyard, Leila has been working in retail in the town for the last 12 years. And while things were “very frightening” for people in the years immediately following the crash, the situation is now steadily improving, she says.

You can see it building, and you can see more people on the street.

“When you’re in business you always look at how many people are carrying bags. You don’t look at how many people are in the shopping centre…

It tells you who’s buying and who’s just walking around window shopping.

Read: The official jobs and economic outlooks are better than expected, but don’t get too excited…

Read: There are 400 new jobs coming to Dundrum 

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