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Is Presbyterian Church right to put profit before people?

By Alf McCreary

Published 11/06/2016

All change: the Presbyterian Church is to close retail units at Spires Shopping Mall
All change: the Presbyterian Church is to close retail units at Spires Shopping Mall

Some people may not be surprised by the decision of the Presbyterian Church to close the retail units in the ground floor mall at Assembly Buildings in Belfast.

They will be surprised, however, that the traders were told about this possibility only two weeks ago, and by e-mail.

There is no easy way to convey bad news but the Presbyterian Church should surely have found a more diplomatic way of informing its tenants who will leave the premises as soon as their leases run out.

The General Assembly accepted a recommendation from the Property Panel on Thursday to close the retail units and to use the space to further the Church's "work and mission".

This was on the same day that I noticed a message outside the Assembly Hall that stated 'people matter'. It made me wonder how much the Assembly was taking this to heart.

In a statement the Property Panel convenor, the Rev Adrian McLernon, said: "We appreciate that this will mean change for the small number of our tenants. We would have liked to have informed them of our proposals sooner but, regrettably, due to many and varied reasons, this has not been possible."

Mr McClernon did not disclose what those reasons were, but in the Assembly 'Blue Book' there was a warning to all that the information in the Property Panel's lengthy report "is commercially viable and should be used with discretion."

Earlier this week I spoke to some of the tenants affected. One woman accused the Church of "un-Christian behaviour", while another asked despairingly: "What can we do? The Church is our landlord and, if it says so, we have to go, and find somewhere else."

David Weiniger, the long-term proprietor of the popular Spires Restaurant, admitted to the sense of shock felt by the residents, though he bravely looked on the positive side and talked about this as a possible opportunity for doing something new.

He stressed that his restaurant would remain open until next summer at least, and said that he and his staff would continue to serve his many customers in every way possible.

I admire his outlook but, nevertheless this is a sad time for all those tenants who tried to keep their businesses going. However, the Mall has been running at a loss commercially and the Church has had to meet the shortfall.

Something, had to be done and the Rev McLernon told the General Assembly: "This is an opportunity for the Presbyterian Church to take occupancy of the ground floor of Assembly Buildings and make it work for us."

The intention is to provide more space for exhibitions and conferences. This is partly because of the upturn in tourism, and the influx of many students who will be living in suitable accommodation nearby.

So far, so good. It makes sense to increase conference space as a way of making money, but I am not sure if an exhibition centre will be such a big draw, in such a place.

All of this will take a year and more to accomplish, and one hopes that the Church will get it right, even if they made one of their greatest mistakes some years ago by voting to sell off their entire headquarters, Church House.

By the grace of God that did not happen, and the Church held on to the Assembly Buildings. Only time will tell whether this latest venture will prove to be wise, or otherwise.

Belfast Telegraph

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