The clear-up bill following a suspected firebomb attack on one of Belfast’s busiest retail parks is expected to run into millions of pounds.
Twelve stores were damaged — three of them seriously — after a huge blaze engulfed part of the Boucher Retail Park early yesterday morning.
The Poundstretcher unit, where the blaze started, was gutted while JD Sports and Birthdays were also badly damaged.
Last night investigations into the fire were continuing. However, the blaze is thought to have been started deliberately.
It is understood the PSNI asked other stores in the retail park to check for incendiary devices.
The fire was discovered around 4am yesterday by drivers making a delivery, and 85 firefighters from across the city were deployed to the scene.
Around half of the stores at the complex were forced to close yesterday, hitting retailers at one of the busiest times of the year.
Poundstretcher, which has 27 stores across Northern Ireland, was destroyed, although staff are expected to be allocated jobs at its other outlets.
Company secretary Martin Collinson said the bill for damaged stock and equipment would top £250,000.
“The premises are leased, but in terms of stock, fittings and equipment you are looking at upwards of £250,000,” he said.
“We have 17 people employed there, the majority work part-time, and we will endeavour to get them relocated to other stores.”
Those affected also included Dave Astin, who owns the Cotswold outdoor store.
“It’s a big setback for traders here, especially in the run-up to Christmas,” he said.
“I feel sorry for the people at Poundstretcher — their store is no more — but hopefully the others will be back on their feet quickly.”
Martin Shepherd, who owns Nevada Bob’s golf shop, said it was a huge blow.
“It’s the worst thing that could have happened at the worst possible time, with Christmas around the corner,” he said.
Boots — which is situated just yards from the fire scene — also suffered smoke damage.
Area manager Liz Kerr said: “Overall we’ve been quite fortunate and we hope to be up and running as quickly as possible.”
In November 2006 dissidents were blamed for a firebomb attack on Homebase in the nearby Shane Retail Park.
And Glyn Roberts, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Traders Association, said retailers were concerned about a campaign of arson by dissidents. “We need to see as a matter of some urgency the conclusions of the investigation of this fire,” he said.
Mark Finlay from South Belfast Partnership Board, which works to promote the area, said the blaze had come at a bad time for traders.
“We are seeing displacement of businesses out of Boucher Road and the economic landscape is hard enough without this,” he said. “This is a retail park. People don’t come necessarily for one outlet, so damage to one is going to impact on the other businesses.”