Tesco closures spark fears over future of Connswater shopping centre in Belfast
Concerns have been raised over the future of one of Northern Ireland's oldest shopping centres after it was revealed its anchor tenant Tesco is to close.
More than 160 jobs are under threat after the supermarket giant revealed it was shutting three of its Northern Ireland stores.
It is culling two stores in east Belfast - including at Connswater, one of Belfast's best-known shopping centres - and another in Ballymena as part of cost-cutting measures right across the company.
Connswater will lose its main tenant when Tesco shuts its doors in April, putting almost 100 jobs at risk.
The east Belfast shopping centre, which pre-dates CastleCourt and Newry's Buttercrane Centre, is owned by Frank Boyd of Killultagh Estate.
It's thought the opening of a new Tesco superstore on the Castlereagh Road in 2012 could have had a serious impact on footfall at the smaller east Belfast shops nearby.
The closure of the Connswater Tesco could have a "severe impact" on the number of people using the shopping centre, according to Glyn Roberts of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association.
Tesco is also closing its Cregagh Road store, and one located on Church Street in Ballymena.
Both Belfast stores will close on April 4, while the Ballymena outlet will shut on March 15.
The future of some 167 staff is up in the air, despite Tesco boss Dave Lewis saying the company would "wherever possible, offer them (staff) alternative roles".
There had been speculation that Northern Ireland's largest supermarket chain was to close a handful of its stores after it revealed it was putting the brakes on two new outlets in Carryduff and Armagh.
That halted nearly two decades of expansion, and pre-empted the closure of 43 unprofitable stores across the UK.
"It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that our stores in Church Street Ballymena, Connswater and Cregagh Road are included in the 43 we plan to close," Mr Lewis said.
"The decision to close these stores has been exceptionally difficult to take. I recognise it will affect many hard working colleagues, our customers and the communities in which these stores are situated."
East Belfast MP Naomi Long said she would be liaising with Tesco and Connswater over the coming days.
"My primary concern is for those people who may lose their jobs if they are not redeployed to other Tesco stores," the Alliance politician said. "I have been assured the company will attempt to offer them alternative roles and I will remain in contact with Tesco to ensure this happens where possible.
"I am also seeking a meeting with Connswater Shopping Centre management to see about the impact on it."
Speaking about the closure of the Ballymena store, DUP MP Ian Paisley jnr said it was a "blow to trade in Ballymena town centre".
"I want to meet with civic and business leaders and discuss ways to improve the offering that Ballymena can make," he said.
"Obviously anything that potentially damages the town centre must be avoided and anything that promotes it must be encouraged."
Tesco has suffered a drastic reversal of fortunes, down to declining sales and an accounting mis-statement.
Store closures right across the UK now mean a total of 2,000 jobs are at risk.