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Primark fire: 'It's been a year of hell and a very lonely time'

As the Primark fire raged, the owners of the nearby City Picnic restaurant couldn't have predicted the struggle ahead. Ivan Little talks to the pair about their new start

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

The owners of a Belfast restaurant that's still closed 12 months after the devastating Primark fire are hoping to re-open the eatery in the autumn after a "year of hell" that almost destroyed their lives.

Gavin Gregg and Arthur McAnerney believe more should have been done to help businesses trapped inside the cordon thrown up around Bank Buildings after the blaze.

The pair, the driving force behind City Picnic, at the junction of Castle Street and Fountain Street, just yards from the Primark Building, have only just settled their insurance claim after protracted negotiations.

"It's been a long, hard road," said Gavin. "There were times when we didn't know how we would make it from one day to another.

Ivan with the owners
Ivan with the owners

"We had no money, yet we had families to feed and bills to pay and it was all down to something that wasn't even our fault.

"We had put every last penny into our business.

"We put our lives on the line to make it a success and, after four difficult years, we had started to turn it around. Then the fire happened."

Gavin also spoke of his anger and frustration at seeing Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visiting Bank Buildings in May, nine months after the fire.

The royal couple met with council and Primark staff, who told them of the ongoing work to restore the building and re-open the store.

"But they never came near us," said Gavin, who watched from his upstairs office at City Picnic as the fire took hold in Bank Buildings.

As the flames intensified, he had little time to clear his staff and customers from the premises.

"As we left, the glass from Bank Buildings was exploding onto us," he said.

"The heat was unbelievable. I thought Bank Buildings was going to fall.

Prince Charles and Camilla visit Belfast after the fire
Prince Charles and Camilla visit Belfast after the fire

"In a way, it might have been better if it had collapsed because the clean-up would have been easier."

As the blaze raged, the business owners were allowed just a few moments, under the protection of firefighters, inside their restaurant to collect computers and other vital equipment.

Afterwards, a cordon was erected around the fire-ravaged building.

It was another seven months before Gavin and Arthur were allowed full access to their restaurant.

Neither man believed getting back into business would be so hard.

"There was just one obstacle after another," Gavin said.

"The insurance was a nightmare and then there was the city council.

"We were at the first meeting with 300 other affected businesspeople and were told that the council was going to help us."

So, did the council help?

"It did and it didn't," said Gavin. "It (the council help) came with a lot of restrictions. It was never that easy.

"It was a very lonely time and, only for the friendship between Arthur and me, we might not have survived the crisis."

Arthur, who supports the restoration of Bank Buildings, added: "It was very important that we kept our voices heard.

"It would have been easy to disappear off the radar."

At one point, Gavin threatened to beat a huge drum outside a City Hall office until an official agreed to see him.

He said he and his business partner received interim insurance payments and £19,000 from a fund financed by £500,000 donated by Primark.

"But we owed that money before we got it," he explained, adding that they held onto staff until November, when they were forced to make the "distressing" decision to let all but one of them go.

The businessmen are now focusing their energy on breathing new life into City Picnic.

"If we'd had the resources like the bigger businesses around us, we could have had this place up and running again in April, but we didn't," Gavin said.

"However, what happened happened and now that the insurance has been sorted we are coming out fighting, dusting ourselves off.

"We are going to refurbish and we are also keeping the name.

"We have redesigned the whole re-build and we are hoping that we can have a reopening at the end of October."

Looking back, the restaurant owners believe things could and should have been done differently by the powers-that-be.

"I think the Government should have an emergency package in place for all cities in the UK to be protected from this size of disaster because this was caused by absolutely nothing to do with us," Gavin said.

"There should be better set-ups in place, through councils and the Government, to help people get from A to Z with the parties involved."

Arthur believes a dedicated team should have been established to help businesses like City Picnic with suggestions for relocations.

"We wanted to get a stall in the Christmas market at the City Hall, but we told there wasn't one," he said.

"Instead, we got a chip van in Donegall Place to sell burgers from - that just wasn't the answer."

Gavin stressed that the money provided by the council to attract shoppers back into the city centre could have been better spent helping the businesses trapped inside the cordon.

Arthur added that the insurance money coming the restaurant's way would not be enough to cover all the outgoings.

"It's about half of what it will cost us to get us back on our feet," he said.

"But we have every confidence in our business going forward, and that's why we are reinvesting to make our restaurant bigger and even more special."

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