A free event aimed at the SME sector, ‘Taking Care of Business’, took place yesterday in Galway, when a host of State offices and agencies provided information to those thinking of starting a business as well as existing small business owners and managers on topics such as the supports available to them from enterprise agencies and local authorities.
The event showcased how the role of local authorities is changing, with councils set to become home to Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) later this year. These will provide access to mentoring, training and management development programmes, financial supports, and to a range of other local authority services, including planning and licensing.
The aim of the LEOs is to provide ‘one stop shop’ access to the supports already facilitated by local Enterprise Boards, as well as additional business supports and assistance provided by the local authorities. Each LEO will also develop a local plan for boosting enterprise.
The roll-out of LEOs in local authorities across the country is expected to begin in April, with the new network comprising 31 offices staffed by 170 dedicated employees, who will be supported by additional local authority liaison personnel.
Galway City Council’s Liam Hanrahan says that support will still be available to businesses from experienced Galway County & City Enterprise Board staff such as Breda Fox, in addition to local authority staff.
The Galway County & City Enterprise Board office in Woodquay will remain open for the “foreseeable future”, according to Mr Hanrahan, with an office space in City Hall also set to be opened in future.
The opening of the LEO is not the only pro-business change that City Hall is hoping to bring about in the coming months and years. It is also actively encouraging an ‘open door’ policy on planning, according to Mr Hanrahan.
He says that all city planners are willing to meet with businesses to guide them through the planning process, whether they are a big or a small business.
“Have a pre-meeting with a planner before you go and do anything,” he advises, adding the council is “trying to lessen to the cost” for businesses by letting them know what is practical for them, and what they can do. “They can do that by coming in and chatting to us, they don’t necessarily have to bring in a planning consultant and go to big expense.”
And engaging with businesses on issues such as street furniture, licensing and waste licenses is another way in which the council is attempting to become more pro-business.
“For example, our environmental officer will meet any business to try and help them to lessen their waste output. For businesses, particularly the tourism type businesses, managing waste is a huge expense and, if we can support them in any way through our environment section to lessen that, it’s a saving for them.”
Commercial rates is often a contentious issue for city businesses but Mr Hanrahan points out that they have not been increased in recent years, and council has also put in place a payment system to assist companies.
“So you don’t have to pay, as you used to have to do a number of years ago, all at once. You can approach our finance section and sit down and work out a schedule of payment that suits your business and where you are and if you are in trouble, the door is open, come in and say, ‘I won’t make my direct debit and something will be worked out.’”
Changes expected to be brought in later this year will see the current 100 per cent rebate on vacant commercial properties in Galway City reduced to 50 per cent, which it is hoped will reduce the number of vacant properties in the city, and Mr Hanrahan adds that the council is also exploring other rate options, such as those employed in Limerick where businesses opening in long-term vacant properties receive a further rebate.
These changes aside, driving the economic development of the city is one of the key priorities for Galway City Council in the coming years and Mr Hanrahan also cites working with local business groups such as the Latin Quarter on achieving Purple Flag status, an accreditation scheme that recognises excellence in the management of town and city centres at night, as an example of the local authority’s positive approach to business in the city.
Over the next few months, the council will also be working on developing an economic development plan for the city and the county, which will include issues such as the operation of the LEO, the city’s marketing fund, how the local authority can better support multinationals, and the infrastructure needed for business, such as high speed broadband.
Mr Hanrahan believes there are things Galway “is doing well”, including the city’s electrical capacity and good water connections, but the local authority also needs to ensure that every part of the city is accessible to high speed broadband and is well served by public transport, for example ensuring that bus routes adequately serve the multinationals on the city’s outskirts and the industrial estates.
Marketing the city is another vital aspect to the city council’s economic development plans, particularly in light of Galway being named Europe’s Micro City of the Year by the Financial Times. fDi Magazine, a Financial Times publication, also ranked Galway City in second place as Best Micro City for economic potential, second place Micro City for economic potential and third best Micro City in business friendliness.
“We have Micro City Award now; we need to use it. There’s no point in winning an award and sitting back and saying, ‘It’s great to have it,’” says Mr Hanrahan.
The local authority is also hoping to further market the city through MeetWest, the largest business networking event in the West of Ireland, which returns to Galway in November and is expected to be attended by some 400 SMEs, and the WestExpo event in the RDS Dublin in February 2015, which will showcase Galway and the West on a larger scale.
Another key way of getting Galway’s message out on a global scale has been the City of Galway video (www.cityofgalway.net) produced by the council last year, and sent to every IDA Ireland office in the world, which proved a hit in a number of US cities.
The video highlights Galway’s beauty, culture and welcoming atmosphere, as well as its educated workforce, infrastructure and existing technology hubs, because, as Mr Hanrahan points out, both indigenous companies and multinationals cite the quality of life offered in Galway as a primary driver for establishing a base, with this also, in turn, encouraging skilled workers to remain or relocate here.