Retailers in Belfast mall accuse landlords of 'unChristian behaviour'
Church faces unholy row with tenant traders at Presbyterian HQ over 'closure' plans
Traders in the Spires Shopping Mall at Fisherwick Place in Belfast have accused the Presbyterian Church of "unChristian behaviour".
It follows revelations that they may have to leave because the Church - their landlord - is considering plans to totally revamp the ground floor of the building to make way for a new exhibition centre and offices.
A decision on the future use of the building is being taken this morning when the matter will be debated at the annual General Assembly in Church House.
One Spires trader told the Belfast Telegraph: "We feel very let down by the way in which the Church is handling this. It is supposed to be a Godly institution, but it is not behaving in a Godly way.
"We were informed of what is happening only a few days ago, and we fear that we will have to close down our businesses and leave."
After a year of deliberation, a Church task force is presenting the Assembly with three options - to do nothing, or to carry out a full and expensive refurbishment of the entire ground floor to provide additional conference facilities with a new retail unit, closing the existing retail units to make way for offices. A third option, which is backed by the task force, is to extensively refurbish the ground floor "but excluding the refurbishment of the retail units for office use".
It is not clear whether this option would mean the exclusion of the traders.
Either way, the traders remain extremely worried that they will have to move elsewhere.
The task force suggests that the space for retail units could be used as temporary storage for exhibitions or conferences.
It also argues that if the retail units were closed, the tricky question of Sunday trading in a Church property would not arise.
The report states that the mall has been losing money, and that "there is a window of opportunity" to bring it back into the "Church's own use".
It adds, however, that "it is not possible to close the mall without the Church having in place a scheme demonstrating how it intends to use the space".
The mall houses about a dozen traders, including fashion and artisan retailers, and a popular cafe.
It opened in 1992 as part of a major refurbishment of the Church House complex at a cost of nearly £7 million.
It still has an overdraft of £3.8m, which, according to Church estimates, will not be cleared until 2026.
The Assembly 'blue book' cautioned that the information in the task force report is "commercially sensitive and should be used with discretion".
A Presbyterian Church spokesman told the Belfast Telegraph: "We cannot comment until the matter has been dealt with by the General Assembly."