There is probably no more graphic indicator of the economic slump than the scores of boarded-up former retail premises in our towns and cities right across the province. In the main these were once fine family-run businesses which found it impossible to stave off the range of pressures exerted on them. Out-of-town retail parks, competition from multi-nationals, the growth of internet shopping and the general downturn in the economy all combined to force these businesses to shut.
But these are more than just eyesores or reminders of hard times.
The sight of redundant businesses also saps the morale of the local community and can lead to a spiral of social decline. Investors looking for suitable sites to start their ventures will also be deterred by what they see and will seek other, more prosperous looking locations.
However, it is vital entrepreneurship is encouraged even in times of austerity. If the retail sector is finding it tough, then town and city management bodies must seek alternative businesses. As a first step, removing the signs of blight from their centres is vital. That means encouraging other uses for the vacant properties. Just as the business community has to be creative and innovative, so too should statutory bodies or even property owners.
Subsidised or free rents or rates holidays could help fledgling enterprises take root. Creative industries such as arts and crafts or tourism facilities could find new homes in properties currently slowly decaying. The Department for Social Development is developing a strategy to help regenerate town centres, but more can be done at street level.
There are no magic wands available in these times, but there are examples like Portaferry, which show imagination harnessed to strong business acumen and community pride can bring about a remarkable transformation.