City centre shops need everyone’s support in run-up to Christmas
There was good news for Primark fans last week as the company announced that it would open in its newly built extension unit at Commonwealth House in Castle Street just before Christmas.
Its opening will take place more than three months after the huge fire which ripped through the adjoining Bank Buildings in August.
The cordon around the site has forced over 20 businesses to close and the impact on footfall is costing the city centre up to £3m a month.
However, some of the efforts to try to deal with the adverse retailing conditions have been impressive.
The Belfast Telegraph’s restaurant critic Joris Minne initiated the Belfast Cordon Busters scheme in support of the beleaguered restaurant sector.
After consulting some of the businesses most immediately affected by the sudden loss of footfall, 10 “restaurants of the cordon” were identified and a competition set up to encourage the public to eat there to win an ‘I Beat the Cordon’ medal.
This proactive and positive attitude must be applauded and indeed supported.
As an office, we at Frazer Kidd are trying to encourage our staff to spend a little bit more time in the city both during the day and in the evening, resulting in some of us visiting retailers close to the cordon where we perhaps wouldn’t usually shop.
The management of the cordon is being co-ordinated by Belfast City Council and we understand that the council is proposing to put in place way-finding signage at various locations throughout the city to try and improve pedestrian footfall.
A new access tunnel is also planned to allow pedestrians to walk along the front of Bank Buildings from Donegall Place to Royal Avenue.
Although these are positive steps by the council, we all ap- preciate that the cordon must be removed as soon as is safely possible to allow the city to be reinstated as a single free-flowing pedestrian area, allowing our city to thrive.
The Primark fire has unfortunately added to the existing difficulties that retailers face in Belfast including the uncertainty of Brexit and the lack of a Stormont Executive.
In fact it would not be an overstatement to say that retailers are facing some of the toughest obstacles they have encountered in recent years.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and Ulster Bank Commercial Market Survey for the third quarter of 2018 shows that the retail sector across the whole of Northern Ireland is continuing to face significant challenges, with an increase in the balance of respondents saying that demand for retail occupier demand has fallen. So as we address the obstacles, let’s not forget to speak as a single voice in promoting the many positive aspects of Belfast. The fact that Primark was considerably increasing the size of its store and has publicly expressed a desire to be open again and commence trading as quickly as possible is undoubtedly a positive message. The fact that Belfast is also continuing to attract new retailers including Seasalt in Arthur Street, Vans and Nespresso in Victoria Square and Matalan in CastleCourt is also great news.
On a wider scale, the city is also continuing to benefit from an ever-increasing tourism industry and the indigenous population of the city centre will continue to grow due to the proposed creation of new office buildings, such as The Sixth, which will provide for 230,000 sq ft of office accommodation, and the opening of the Ulster University campus, which will bring 15,000 students and staff into the city.
The message we should all be communicating, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, is that Belfast is undoubtedly open for business and that the fire at Bank Buildings, while a major challenge, has simply highlighted the strength and resolve of those who live and work within Belfast city and wish to see it prosper and grow.