John Lewis pours cold water on hopes it could set up shop in Belfast
Superstore John Lewis has spurned a plea from hard-hit Belfast traders to consider locating in the city centre.
Beleaguered Belfast shop owners believe the major UK brand would add to the city's retail offer.
And despite the company's clear preference for Sprucefield, the Belfast retailers argue the site near Lisburn would not be given the go-ahead in any other part of the UK.
The appeal for a rethink comes after the Belfast Telegraph revealed city centre businesses – currently dealing with the effects of parade and flag protests, and the growth of on-line shopping – would lose a further £70m if John Lewis opens at Sprucefield.
A report commissioned by the Department of the Environment and obtained by the Belfast Telegraph warned that John Lewis at Sprucefield would severely hit trade in Lisburn, Craigavon, Newtownards, Banbridge and Newry.
John Lewis withdrew its application for a Sprucefield store in February after the then Environment Minister Alex Attwood decided to limit development at the site to bulky goods outlets.
But First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have since revealed plans for special economic zones which could resurrect the Sprucefield expansion. New fast-track planning powers may be included in legislation expected in the autumn.
Andrew Irvine, chief executive of Belfast City Centre Management Company, said: "With the approval of planning permission for the Royal Exchange complex there was a suitable location for John Lewis in the retail core of Belfast city centre. In fact, the anchor store plans for Royal Exchange are designed specifically to meet the needs of John Lewis.
"Other major retailers in Belfast city centre, such as House of Fraser, are on record as saying they would welcome John Lewis."
But a spokesman for John Lewis responded: "We have been clear throughout that having assessed the Royal Exchange scheme it does not provide a viable opportunity. It doesn't offer sufficient sales potential and the proposed location and configuration does not meet our requirements."
Lagan Valley DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who hopes to meet John Lewis bosses when a new planning bill is confirmed, said he believed the DoE argument was "deeply flawed".
For nine years John Lewis wanted to build a four-storey store at Sprucefield, near Lisburn.
The expansion would also have seen an additional 19 retail units and car parking for more than 3,000 vehicles.
And there were claims the development led by Sprucefield Centre Ltd – a consortium involving Australian property firm Westfield and local developer, Snoddons – would create 1,500 jobs.