Retail expert calls for investment in Belfast's flagging city centre
Belfast's Donegall Place, formerly the city centre's prime shopping area, needs more investment to thrive following the effects of the Primark fire, it has been claimed.
Donegall Place has recently been boosted by the reopening of fashion giant Zara, which had been shut following the fire at Primark's Bank Buildings at the end of August.
Primark has also opened another store at Donegall Place's Fountain House.
However, there are at least five large empty units along the shopping strip.
A former Therapie/Optilase store on the corner of Donegall Place is empty, along with a neighbouring unit between Footlocker and Burger King.
In addition a large unit formerly occupied by the Belfast Welcome Centre, before its move to Donegall Square North, is empty.
A unit at 11-13 Donegall Place, formerly occupied by Poundworld, is also up for rent.
Shoe retailer Aldo recently shut its shop at 12 Donegall Place, creating another vacancy.
Aodhan Connolly, director of the NI Retail Consortium, said initiatives such as more hospitality, leisure units and the creation of living space above shops could help areas such as Donegall Place where there are high vacancy levels.
He added: "The city centre has had a perfect storm over the past couple of years, with rents and rates rising, along with private sector investment being stifled in the past 10 years.
"This was all before the Bank Buildings fire, which cut the city centre in half for several months and still presents challenges.
"What we need is to look to the future and reinvent our high streets with an eclectic mix of retail, hospitality, leisure and innovations such as living space over the shops.
"We need to make our city centre a destination where people spend not just money but time.
"Luckily, people like Belfast One Improvement District have already started these conversations. To save our city centre others need to do the same."
A report from the British Retail Consortium today says that year on year employment in retail fell by 2.4% in the first quarter of this year.
It says structural change in the industry triggered by the growth in online shopping is the reason behind the fall.