Chamber chief hails ‘creative thinking’ shown following Belfast Primark inferno
The fire at Belfast city centre's Primark prompted a continuing rethink of how to make the city centre more family-friendly, according to the president of the city's Chamber of Trade and Commerce.
Rajesh Rana was into his third month in the post when the fire at Bank Buildings broke out. It led to many months of disrupted business for retailers and shoppers in the area after a cordon was put in place around the unsafe building. "We all really felt it," he said.
In October alone footfall was down 60% on the year before.
Fast food restaurant City Picnic closed on the day of the fire and hasn't been opened since, though hopes to be open again by the autumn. Others such as Pizza Boutique struggled on for a time after the cordon was reduced, only to also shutter their premises completely.
Primark opened two stores, one at the back of its Bank Buildings shop and another on Donegall Place - though it is also planning a restoration of Bank Buildings. Fashion chain Zara was closed for around seven months, thanks to its close proximity to Bank Buildings.
Mr Rana said the first impact had been to galvanise organisations in the city to work together with a greater sense of urgency than ever before.
"There was Belfast City Council, then ourselves in the Chamber, then the other business-type organisations like Belfast City Centre Management and also the Department for Communities, and Translink.
"It did throw us together and resulted in a great deal of co-ordination and co-working. It's probably strengthened that relationship and added impetus to work together."
That led to initiatives to draw people into the city centre around Christmas, such as a winter-themed slide in Royal Avenue and stalls selling fast food. And a kids' play park was also installed in Castle Place.
Mr Rana said: "The animation that the council provided in the peak Christmas season meant the city was very busy, and that did attract people into the city that probably hadn't been in recently.
"All of that has put a spotlight on the city centre and prompted a discussion on how we get families back in, as well as a continuing discussion about getting more people to live in the city centre."
He said a new play park was now being planned for Buoy Park close to Ulster University in the northern end of the centre, while the Entries area - including Joy's Entry, Pottinger's Entry and Winecellar Street - was also be enhanced. Discussions are taking place, too, about pedestrianisation and improving public transport into and around the city.
Mr Rana - whose company Andras House owns a string of hotels in the city - said the crisis of the fire had led to creative thinking. "I would say it did stimulate new ideas to try things, which don't always work but it's good to try them.
"It certainly has highlighted the importance of the city centre. When it wasn't functioning we all really felt it."
He said retail was the biggest pull into the city centre, but that the night-time economy and the drive to get more people living in it were also a big part of planning its future. And he said retail in Belfast centre - despite the well-publicised difficulties of the sector as a whole - was performing well.
"We've had a new store, Anthropologie, opening in Arthur Street; two Primark shops opening; and CastleCourt Shopping Centre has a new Matalan, which does very well.
"And in Belfast, we still have our big-brand retailers like House of Fraser, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer - retailers which have closed stores in other city centres."
And he said other parts of the city centre were being redeveloped, such as a site close to Smithfield Market and the Tribeca development around the Cathedral Quarter.
The Tribeca name has attracted objections as it's also the name of a district in New York. But Mr Rana said he did not object to the name.
"The name gives definition to the area and at the end of the day, the priority isn't the name but making sure development starts, proceeds and benefits the city centre."