Belfast's virtual shops - regeneration or a sticking plaster?
When is a shop not a shop? The answer can increasingly be found in town centres across Northern Ireland. When it's a fake store front designed to spruce up the look of a derelict property which otherwise would become an eyesore.
Boarded-up shops made to look like they are thriving businesses or painted with striking historical images. The policy is not new but it was thrown sharply into focus in the run-up to the recent G8 summit in Fermanagh. Perhaps it was because the media had little else to write about that they chose to focus on what came to be known as 'fakeland'.
The US media had a field day with the bogus butcher's shop in Belcoo and the fake coffee shop in Maguiresbridge. One American media outlet even claimed that Northern Ireland had built a fake town for the G8. In total more than 100 properties in the county were tidied up or redecorated in the run-up to the summit through public works schemes funded by the Department of Social Development and Department of Environment and overseen by the local council.
The approach has sharply divided critics. Sinn Fein MLA for the area Phil Flanagan was the most vocal opponent. In an interview he said: "These fake buildings are in every town and village in Fermanagh now. People are amused by them. Nobody is fooled. It's like when your mother-in-law comes to visit and you give your house a tidy-up.
"It's not part of regeneration, it's just about papering over the cracks and putting out lies about the economy. Most people think it's a waste of money."
But the comments drew a sharp response from DoE Minister Alex Attwood. He said: "It's a strange place that useful and visible improvements are derided. To portray it as a big lie is downright wrong. What would the MLA have us do, spend nothing and let the area not measure up to the opportunity to showcase Fermanagh?"
The debate certainly livened up some of the coverage of the G8 with the absence of the expected mass protests at the summit, but it no doubt hints at a much wider problem across Northern Ireland. The province has the highest level of derelict shops of any area of the UK. A quick stroll through many of our main streets betrays the harsh reality that more and more small and independent businesses have simply ceased to exist.
What is left in their place are a series of empty units which were previously thriving businesses. Supporters of the fake shop front schemes argue that in order to have some chance of securing new investment a town centre must be made to look more attractive. In other words, take the bad look off it. But retail groups warn that simply sprucing up empty shops is a 'sticking plaster' approach which masks the real problem of a lack of imaginative ideas on how our town centres can be saved. Others may argue that this is an inevitable result of the growth of large out-of-town shopping centres.
None of this is new. Residents of the Newtownards Road in Belfast have been walking past fake shops for years. But it is spreading fast. The DSD has confirmed to this paper that they have used public money to fund fake shop fronts in 20 towns. The regeneration schemes take a number of forms.
From stickers of imaginary busy interiors placed over boarded-up shops to artistic murals of picturesque or historic scenes painted on shutters which have come down for good. A number of existing businesses has also taken advantage of public money to have their shutters sprayed to make their premises look more attractive during evening hours when they are not open.
One of the companies which has made the most of the trend is Middlesborough-based Shutter Media. The company specialises in painting scenes of thriving industries on to shop shutters. As part of the Enniskillen regeneration drive they were responsible for painting images on shutters of most of the businesses in the town's main streets.
One of the artists, Ryan Rice, said their work was making town centres more attractive. "It just helps to brighten the thing up. It's more eye-catching, it makes the community seem a bit more alive."
The company's managing director Steve Hale added: "One leg of the project was to brighten up Enniskillen in time for the G8. But it isn't solely about the G8, we work for different local authorities."