In Pictures: £8m spent on fake shop fronts in Northern Ireland
But struggling traders fear project 'papering over cracks'
More than £8m has been spent on projects to create fake shop fronts in town centres across Northern Ireland.
As the recession has deepened the artistic creations have been used to cover up derelict shops in almost 60 different locations. The Department for Social Development has invested £8.2m over the last six years. But traders are concerned that the fake shop fronts are merely papering over the cracks of a struggling retail sector.
The Department for Social Development (DSD) said it has invested £8.2m on these ReStore/Revitalisation projects over the last six years.
It added that the money – which has delivered 59 schemes – was spent "largely on physical enhancements to shop fronts".
Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) boss Glyn Roberts has voiced concerns over this growing phenomenon.
He said: "Fake shop fronts have a role to play but only as a very short-term measure. I'm concerned that many of them have become semi-permanent fixtures when the real focus should be on finding a long-term solution to the shop vacancy rate across Northern Ireland."
But Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland said he has had positive feedback from the business community as a result of the ReStore/Revitalisation work.
"The uptake from traders in the towns and cities targeted has been excellent and has ensured as many of the businesses and buildings as possible were improved," said Mr McCausland.
"It has also resulted in significant private sector investment, an increase in tourism and revenue and enhancement of shopper experiences."
In a wider programme of economic regeneration over the last six years, the DSD has poured £83m into 78 public realm schemes here.
The 26 cities and towns which have already benefited from a financial fillip are Belfast; Londonderry; Armagh; Lisburn; Newry; Ballymena; Coleraine; Limavady; Strabane; Antrim; Portrush; Ballymoney; Carrickfergus; Ballyclare; Randalstown; Ballycastle; Armagh; Lurgan; Portadown; Banbridge; Dromore; Castlereagh; Newcastle; Downpatrick, Kilkeel and Cookstown.
Demand for investment in virtual shop fronts as a means of making over boarded-up retail units is big in Northern Ireland, which has the UK's highest number of empty commercial units.
A project in Enniskillen in the run-up to the G8 summit last year led to the lakeland town being nicknamed "fakeland".
Artist Ryan Rice painted scenes of thriving industries on to shop shutters in many of the businesses in Enniskillen's main streets.
He said his work makes town centres more attractive, adding: "It makes the community seem a bit more alive."
FOR: 'Good... as long as it's not a short-term fix'
AS one of our oldest, historic and attractive cities, Armagh knows that public image is important and that first impressions count, writes John Briggs
As part of our strategy for growth, we have invested in a variety of visible improvement schemes which have made positive impacts to areas or buildings which have not been properly maintained in and around the city centre.
However, investments such as these should only be made as part of a wider strategy. They shouldn't be used as a short-term fix.
Everyone recognises just how important tourism is and we take this extremely seriously in Armagh. As a city that attracts thousands of visitors, we can't afford to let anyone leave with a poor impression.
Working in partnership with the community and business, we want to make sure Armagh looks its best and that we, as residents of this beautiful city and region, feel proud.
John Briggs is chief executive of Armagh City and District Council
Against 'Optical illusion is just that... an illusion'
IT started in New York in the 1980s and now it's right here in Northern Ireland, writes Donald McFetridge
New York Mayor Ed Koch probably had no idea how far-reaching his idea for fake shop fronts would become.
Supporters say it makes vacant premises look more aesthetically pleasing. The only way to make vacant premises better is to spend money encouraging would-be occupiers to set up businesses and get people coming through their doors spending money.
There's absolutely no point trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. Optical illusions are just that – illusions. They're not real and they never will be.
Let's see public money spent wisely and prudently by trying to encourage start-ups and lowering business rates in order to encourage our budding entrepreneurs.
In short, let's stop faking it! It simply doesn't work.
Donald McFetridge is retail analyst at the University of Ulster
ReStore/Revitalisation schemes – promoted by councils in conjunction with local traders and the funding support of the Department for Social Development – have largely focused on physical enhancements to shop fronts. However, some schemes have included small elements of revenue expenditure to help promote the town centres and the independent retail sector. Schemes have ranged from the £28m Belfast Streets Ahead project in Belfast city centre, to more modest schemes, such as a £225,000 scheme in Dromore, Co Down.