2019 is not a bad time to become president of Ennis Chamber, as Gwen Culligan is doing, with the town’s economy in a relatively sweet spot, while still strengthening and improving.
Gwen is co-owner of the County Boutique on O’Connell Street, with her sister Maeve Flouch, and it is a family business that goes back to the 1960s.
The business was a huge part of Gwen’s childhood. “Our playground was O’Connell Street. After school, at lunchtime from school and whatever, we’d be there. I’m from Clon Road, so we’re real townies,” she laughs.
Her mother worked in the business right up until her death in 2005. Gwen was away for a number of years working in AIB but has been in the shop for around 30 years now, placing her at the heart of Ennis commerce.
She has also been active in the chamber for quite a long spell.
“I’ve been involved in the chamber on and off for years. I joined Junior Chamber when I came home and was president there. Then I got involved in the Lions Club and I’m still involved in it. I was involved in the chamber and got into Promote Ennis and came up with the idea for Ennis Fashion Week. I was chair and co-chair of that for seven years.”
Getting involved in it gives business people a chance to have a voice in what happens in their town, she feels.
“For me, I think the main thing is if you get involved with the chamber, you can get involved in making changes, coming up with ideas to create a better town for us all. Ennis Fashion Week was a great example of that. We came up with a byline, the boutique capital of Ireland, and it lasted a long time. Still people come to Ennis and know that it’s a great shopping town and it was always a great shopping town. That was one of the things I felt we had influence on. It’s about getting involved and giving something to your town and community and making a difference.”
She says the County Boutique never knew what a recession felt like until the bleak year of 2009, when retail sales were falling dramatically as the Irish economy imploded.
“It was always a good business but it got difficult in 2009. We’ve managed to trade well out of the recession. We’ve expanded; we opened a second store five years ago in Nenagh. We’re expanding online now as well.”
Retail is an extremely sensitive business, with customers’ spending likely to be influenced by things as separate as a bad shower of rain or problems in the international bond markets.
“I always think that in retail, in particular, we’re frontline. If the weather is bad, we’re affected immediately, on that day. If the news is bad, we’re also affected and if the news or weather is good, there’s an uplift. We’re affected by anything that’s going on in the news or in the town.”
Overall, she thinks the local economy is in a relatively good place right now, although it is still more difficult to be in business than it was pre-downturn.
“Things are different since the recession. It costs money to do business. While people have stable enough businesses, the costs are greater; you have to provide the digital experience as well. The minimum wage and all those things have gone up, whereas maybe turnover hasn’t. The costs are greater but I’d say it’s stable and the only thing on the horizon that might be negative is Brexit, so we’re all waiting for that to be done.”
The main impact of Brexit has been a reluctance to take any major steps, until there is some more certainty. “I’d say it has prevented maybe people making changes or upgrading. People are waiting.”
She hopes to see a more vibrant town emerging in the coming years. “I’d like to see Parnell Street developed, so the premises are all operational, I’d like to see more people working in the town. To have the buildings all utilised would be the ideal, to have a town that is busy and vibrant, both at ground floor and upstairs, that we’d have a living, working community.”
Pedestrianisation is something that gets kicked around from time to time, as a possibility for Ennis town centre.
While there has been some enthusiasm for it from Clare County Council, she feels that it shouldn’t go too far.
“My own view is that if you bring in full-scale pedestrianisation, there might be a lot of businesses brought to a level where they won’t survive. As chamber president, we have to look after the livelihoods of people. There are over 200 businesses in the centre of Ennis and we would like to see them survive,” she points out.
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.