Ballymena's second claim to fame after Liam Neeson ... it's the town of empty shops
It's the home town of movie star Liam Neeson, who received the Freedom of the Borough at the start of this year – but now Ballymena is defending its retail reputation against a less welcome claim to fame.
According to a commercial property report from agents Lisney, the City of the Seven Towers has the most empty shops in Northern Ireland.
Lisney said the Co Antrim town has a shop vacancy rate of 27.2%, up 10% over the past year – more than its council's calculation of 17.9%.
Bangor in Co Down was lumbered with the second highest vacancy rate at 25.7% – but the overall vacancy rate in the sample of 15 towns and two cities was 19%, unchanged from last year.
Declan Flynn, managing director of Lisney in Belfast, said: "In previous years our report has revealed an increase of up to 4.6% in empty shops.
"However, since 2012 there has been no overall change in Northern Ireland retail vacancy rates, which remain at 19% – suggesting the occupancy rate has stabilised despite being higher than the UK average of 11.1%."
Belfast's shop vacancy rate had shown the greatest improvement, with vacancies down 5.9% to 17.2% in the past year.
But Ballymena traders and the town's council fought back against the contention their town was rife with boarded-up shops.
The town has a number of long-standing independent retailers like McKillen's Shoe Shop and Wallace's clothing shop, as well as The Tower Centre and Fairhill Shopping Centre.
However, Lisney said their survey also took account of out-of-town retail in the area, such as the Braidwater Retail Park, while the council's own figures were limited to the centre of the town.
DUP mayor Audrey Wales, who ran a newsagents in the town for 28 years, said: "It depends how you define your town centre.
"We define the centre designated by town planners, and we measure rates in the core town centre quarterly. As of October, our rate was 17.9%.
"If there's a shutter down, it's down – but that's not as dire as the idea that it's almost one-third of the town that's shuttered.
"Last week we had two new businesses open – a bakery on Mill Street re-opened and an artist called Nigel Allison has opened up in Mill Street."
Mr Allison said he had recently relocated to Mill Street from his former studio in Kells. "I found it's been really, really beneficial for me. Since I opened in Ballymena last Wednesday, I've sold six paintings."
SDLP councillor PJ McEvoy said he believed the 27.2% vacancy was "an exaggeration" and that "Ballymena is one of the best shopping towns outside Belfast".
The towns surveyed by Lisney were Ballymena, Omagh, Newtownabbey, Bangor, Newry, Lisburn, Strabane, Antrim, Cookstown, Newtownards, Portadown, Derry, Magherafelt, Coleraine, Craigavon, Enniskillen and Belfast. While Ballymena had shown the worst deterioration, with vacancy rates up 10% to 27.2%, the most improved areas were Belfast (down 5.9% to 17.2%), Enniskillen (down 5.8% to 11%), Derry (down 2.3% to 16.4%), Coleraine (down 4.3% to 16.9%) and Portadown (down 0.5% to 22.2%).