At close to 4pm on Saturday at St Anne’s Park, Bart van Buggenhout lingered at his market stall.
Neighbouring traders at the weekly farmers market packed up. The sky had grown dark and cloudy.
But van Buggenhout, the proprietor of Bart’s Belgian Chocolates, was determined to keep selling his bars of chocolate – dappled with pink peppercorns, cinnamon, and roasted sesame – until the last minute.
If someone appears after the official closing time, keen on something sweet, he’ll trundle along with business. He’s coming up from Kilkenny for this, he said. “I have to make it worth my while.”
It was only recently, after all, that he lost one of his regular trading spots.
Until early November, van Buggenhout also sold at the Friday food market in Phibsboro.
But on 3 November, Dublin City Council wrapped up that market, just six months after it was launched with great enthusiasm.
Van Buggenhout was frustrated at the closure, he says. “I think it was a combination of a lack of awareness and promotion.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the market folded because of a lack of footfall, which caused traders to pull out.
At a meeting of the council’s Central Area Committee on 8 November, councillors called on council officials to dig further into why it had faltered so quickly and to look at whether it could come back in another form next year.
A Promising Start
Dublin City Council launched the Friday market in Phibsboro on 13 May, by the Royal Canal Bank and below the Blaquiere Bridge.
Its location was appealing, says van Buggenhout, who had opened for all bar one of its weekends.
“It was the one market that I personally, really liked. It reminded me a bit more of continental Europe with the look, and it was good for the area,” he says.
The first month was a solid start, he says, as is usual with new markets. “People want to check it out.”
Market manager Jackie Spillane says its offerings were high standard.
There was a cheesemonger, stalls with apples, herbs, microgreens, fresh fish and sourdough breads, she says. “We brought in, at the beginning, some of the best primary producer portfolios I’ve ever started a market with.”
But in June, she says, business went downhill and never managed to recover. “I’ve been trading in and managing markets for over 20 years, and I’d never seen an exodus like we saw this summer.”
Business hours were 11am and 6pm.
Renata Mihalikova of ReHerbal, whose stall sold skincare products, says there was substantial footfall around lunchtime. “The rest of the day was empty. The park was basically empty.”
Spillane estimates that there were 150 to 200 customers during the early afternoon. But save for a momentary uptick at 4pm, it became a ghost market, she says.
“I was sure we’d get the traditional bounce back in the Dublin markets in September when people return from holidays, and they’ve paid the school fees,” she says.
But that never happened.
After the summer, it carried on sliding downhill, Mihalikova says. “There was one good week in September, and then for all of us, suddenly we knew it wasn’t going to last.”
A Bearish Market
Spillane suspects a few factors have played a part, she says.
Among them, anxieties around the energy crisis, a looming recession and a widespread shift towards shopping at discount supermarkets.
“Everyone, myself included, changed our buying patterns,” she says.
The summer dip is standard, Spillane says, but the Phibsboro market appears to be anomalous among those under her management. “Those that are well established seem to be riding this out fine.”
Both Mihalikova and van Buggenhout agree, saying their other markets, in Herbert Park on Sunday and St Anne’s Park, respectively, on Saturdays, seem to be faring fine by comparison.
Mihalikova says that holding the market on Friday maybe wasn’t great. “Because the majority of people don’t have free time on weekdays.”
Trading hours were pared back to make the market more sustainable, says Spillane, and a new closing time was set for 4pm. “But it was too late, and the market had already started on the downward spiral.”
The change in hours disappointed van Buggenhout.
At least in the early months, some of his best business came in the late afternoon, he says. “I thought, this was a Friday market, and it is a good day for business because people’s heads are nearly in the weekend.”
Spillane had hoped that a 6pm close would catch people on the way home from work. Unfortunately, she says, for most of the traders, this second wave never materialised.
Some traders suggested in the final months that improved signage might help, Spillane says. “I had already lost so many vendors already by then.”
The market had been promoted heavily around the Broadstone area, says Sebastian Vencken of the local resident’s association. “But we did notice that quite a lot of people didn’t know about the markets.”
In an email to locals on 3 November, Spillane confirmed the closure, saying there had been a drastic drop off in traders since September.
On 8 November, at the Central Area Committee’s meeting, Fine Gael Councillor Colm O’Rourke tabled an emergency motion calling for the council to reestablish the market and write up a report on why it had closed.
He was annoyed that he had learnt from local residents, rather than the council’s parks department, that it was closed, he says.
“I don’t think it’s good enough that residents come to councillors asking us what the story is and we don’t know,” he said.
Labour Party Councillor Declan Meenagh also put forward an emergency motion, saying a policy should be set stating that the market would return next year.
Meenagh highlighted the need to improve lighting in the park beside Blessington Basin. “The fact that it was getting darker, and we couldn’t light the park, that was the key issue,” he said.
Social Democrats Councillor Cat O’Driscoll said that her understanding from talking to locals was that people struggled to visit the market as the evenings became darker.
What about a seasonal, rather than a year-round market? she asked.
Karl Mitchell, the city council’s director of services, said they would look at the possibility of restarting the market next year, and raise the proposal for a review with the parks department.
Mitchell offered a caution though. The council needed to figure out why footfall was an issue before making any promises, he said. “Traders vote with their feet. If there’s no footfall. They don’t trade.”
Central Area chairperson and Fine Gael Councillor Ray McAdam said the sentiment of both motions had the support of the committee.
But, he said the market offered an opportunity to consider the bigger picture, proposing that its future be coupled with discussions on the redesign of Dalymount Park and the potential for local retail offerings.
“Because that in the longer term may provide the footfall for a regular market in the Royal Canal over the coming years.”
Vencken, chairperson of the Broadstone Basin Residents Association, said locals are eager to establish Phibsboro as an urban village.
The market was an essential part of this aspiration, he said.
It was a wonderful amenity for locals, Vencken said. “It provided more of a presence in the park, which has been coping with anti-social behaviour issues in the past.”
He has similar ideas for what needs to be looked at. Better lighting in the park to make it feel safer, and maybe a day other than Friday.
But demand shouldn’t be the issue, he said. “There is no lack of customers here. It is a densely populated area.”
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