Belfast Telegraph

Once a thriving shopping hub, now it's tough times for traders in boarded-up Ballymena

BY CLAIRE MCNEILLY

First the money disappeared, then the crowds and now, it seems, the shops themselves.

With 'Closing Down' and 'To Let' signs in abundance, and a score of shuttered premises, evidence of the economic slump is everywhere.

Now that one in five of its shops are empty, Ballymena unfortunately lays claim to one of the highest rates of vacancies in Northern Ireland.

It's a far cry from the bustling Co Antrim town six years ago, before an economic slump that traders appear to be still suffering from. Take beleaguered Bryan Street – a small passageway linking the town's main artery, Wellington Street, with Church Street – now devoid of shops.

Women's clothing store NV and Gino Casual, its sister company selling men's clothes, became the latest casualties last week after almost two decades of trading.

They're now boarded up, near a What Everyone Wants outlet and a small casino that were forced to close some years ago through a lack of trade.

Local businessman Davis Wylie (33) recently shut his tattoo shop, Ballymena Ink, at the corner of Mill Street after three-and-a-half years.

"Mill Street is full of empty premises and it looks bad so I'm moving elsewhere in the hope of improving business," he said.

"Things are tough for traders in Ballymena.

"Footfall is definitely down and people don't seem to have any money to spend anymore."

It may be one of the busiest routes for passing traffic, and home to well-known stores, but Church Street hasn't escaped the recession either.

Near the bandstand in the centre of town are the shuttered shops of Longshaft Butchers, which closed five years ago, and The Heart Foundation charity shop that shut last spring.

Further down the street, near Meeting House Lane, sits a trio of vacant properties: Wallace's, Balloons cafe and Eclipse Furniture.

The former, a men's clothing and footwear giant in Ballymena, moved across the road to bigger premises, but its neighbours have apparently ceased to trade.

Retailers said Eclipse Furniture shut up shop before last Christmas after just two years in the area, while the cafe closed six years ago after bad weather caused flooding.

Store manager Jonathan Wallace, who said Wallace's relocated 10 years ago, explained that there were "too many shops and not enough people" in many town centres in Northern Ireland.

"We're doing well but it's not easy for traders," he said.

"Rates are a particularly big issue for us all."

On Broughshane Street, Law's newsagents is now boarded up after more than four decades in business.

A couple of doors up, Fireplaces 'n' Stoves was forced to close in July 2013 because, sources say, competitors made trading unsustainable.

Businesses on Linenhall Street have also had their difficulties.

Among them Donaghy's, a small electrical goods and watch shop, relocated to Castle Street two years ago, while draper and schoolwear shop Brian McKenna stopped trading more than 10 years ago.

On most other streets in the town it's a similar story of struggling shopkeepers, boarded-up buildings and constantly dwindling customers.

A veteran, locally based estate agent, who asked not to be named, said: "Retailing isn't what it was and I can't see the situation improving in the foreseeable future."

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