Month after Belfast Primark blaze, no-go zone traders fear for survival
Retailers close to a Belfast city centre safety cordon have said it's almost not worth opening now that the exclusion zone is in force after the Primark fire.
Revenue is down more than 85% in several shops, but footfall was "absolutely catastrophic" last weekend when a second temporary cordon was erected for more than a day.
One trader, who said the additional cordon has since been removed, claimed that vehicles were also parked inside the red and white tape so that the area "became a car park".
Phone Boutique and Ashers bakery on Royal Avenue are among those who have expressed fears for their future in the wake of the Bank Buildings blaze exactly a month ago.
Staff numbers have been slashed in half at both businesses.
They have also been forced to close early due to a fall in customers linked to a lack of passing trade on what used to be one of the city's busiest streets.
Phone Boutique proprietor Michelle Chichirim said she is extremely worried because it's almost "financially unviable" to stay open.
"I am shocked and angry at how bad business is and I've been in tears often," she said.
"We only had two customers by 2pm last Saturday.
"Red and white tape was put from one side of the street to the other just outside my shop at the weekend, so it looked like we were closed.
"It was awful for several shops.
"Cars were also parked inside the cordoned area, which became a car park, and that didn't help business. At least the cordon was down by lunchtime Monday."
Ms Chichirim, who has been trading there since November 2013, said she can't believe how "sales have fallen off a cliff" in such a short space of time.
"In one month I've gone from never having time to breathe or eat to reducing an employee's full-time contract down to three days a week," she explained.
"Instead of being rushed off our feet and having to restock every three weeks, the shop is almost always empty. Revenue is down by over 85% and now we're lucky if we have four customers a day."
She has promised not to give up on her business, for which she has "sacrificed everything", but she added that she may consider relocating to different premises while the exclusion zone remains.
"I wish they would knock the burnt-out building down, rebuild it and reopen the street before we all go bust," she said.
"We need to act now for the future. People are already losing their jobs and their homes because of the current economic situation. It's a pity Primark went on fire but we must move on. Our voices must be heard."
Another under-pressure retailer is Ashers Baking Company, located two doors up from Phone Boutique. As well as staff cutbacks, weekday opening hours now end at 4pm as a result of falling trade.
Ashers said the current situation was "a sorry state of affairs, affecting people's livelihoods".
A financial support package worth almost £2 million has been earmarked for businesses impacted by the blaze, but concerns are growing that help could come too late for some.
While Primark considers which city centre premises it may move into - one site involves evicting an existing tenant, New Look - smaller traders run a very real risk of extinction.
Primark said it "will do everything we can to ensure that any work carried out to help reduce the cordon happens as safely and as quickly as possible".
"Following the devastating fire at Bank Buildings, Primark has been primarily focused on the welfare of our colleagues, as well as working with local stakeholders regarding our ongoing commitment to businesses and the wider community in Belfast, which has included a £500,000 donation to Belfast City Council's recovery programme," it said.
"Bank Buildings is a listed building of historical significance and we will fully cooperate with the relevant authorities regarding its future once the structural experts' assessments have concluded.
"It has always been Primark's intention to be back up and trading in Belfast as soon as possible.
"We are involved in commercial discussions in relation to Fountain House, Donegall Place and are also assessing the possibility of trading from Commonwealth House, Castle Street."
Belfast City Council said details of a support package for businesses affected, including the donation from Primark, will be launched next week.
"Council has itself committed £1.25m, which will be spent strategically on the recovery of the city centre between now and Christmas," it said, adding that all of the money will be spent on enabling businesses and contributing to the long-term recovery of the city centre.
"The city recovery investment programme is planned to run into 2019, focusing towards Christmas trading and beyond," it added. "It is providing targeted support for businesses severely affected. It will invest in the city to improve connection and movement and make key streets and thoroughfares attractive.
"The programme will fund opportunities and animations to increase footfall to key streets, so that closed-off areas created by the cordon are attractive destinations.
"We are meeting directly with traders to get their important input into how we gear the city centre up for Christmas trading.
"Councillors are also calling on central government, both here in Northern Ireland and via the NIO, to invest in this recovery package."
The Fire and Rescue Service said an investigation into the cause of the blaze, in conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive, was ongoing.
Bennett Construction, which was leading the £30m redevelopment works at Primark, did not respond to our request for comment on the fire.