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Owner of one of Belfast’s oldest businesses fears for future of high street

Eugene Donnelly’s concerns follow the disappearance of several major stores including Debenhams and the Arcadia Group.

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Eugene Donnelly behind the counter of his Belfast sweet shop, Old Time Favourites (Niall Carson/PA)

Eugene Donnelly behind the counter of his Belfast sweet shop, Old Time Favourites (Niall Carson/PA)

Eugene Donnelly behind the counter of his Belfast sweet shop, Old Time Favourites (Niall Carson/PA)

The owner of one of Belfast’s oldest independent businesses has voiced his fears for the future of the city’s high street.

Eugene Donnelly’s family has been running Old Time Favourites in Smithfield for 30 years, but the business has been trading since 1905.

He described Belfast city centre as “like a ghost town” with non-essential retail closed since December under the latest coronavirus restrictions.

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A man carries shopping bags down a quiet street in Belfast city centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

A man carries shopping bags down a quiet street in Belfast city centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

PA

A man carries shopping bags down a quiet street in Belfast city centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

In that time several major retailers, including Debenhams and Arcadia Group, have collapsed.

On the main shopping street from City Hall to Castlecourt shopping centre, other long-established companies such as Eason have also closed.

“You walk down Royal Avenue from City Hall, and look at old photographs, even from the ’90s, the crowds of people and shops compared to now,” he told the PA news agency.

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“We have been here for a long time and we have seen the changing face of Belfast – not for the better.

“We’re like a beacon of light left, a lot of businesses around us have gone, including big names.

“Debenhams was an anchor store for Castlecourt and Topshop in Victoria Square is also gone.”

A High Street Taskforce set up by the Stormont Executive held its first meeting recently and is set to explore ways to revitalise town and city centres across Northern Ireland.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £5.8 billion high street restart fund in his recent Budget.

Of that, £170 million is earmarked for Northern Ireland.

Other planned initiatives include the distribution of vouchers by Diane Dodds’ Department for the Economy.

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The Belfast branch of Debenhams (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Belfast branch of Debenhams (Liam McBurney/PA)

PA

The Belfast branch of Debenhams (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Donnelly said the taskforce must have funding and teeth to bring change.

“Or is it going to be another talking shop? We need to act now, we need initiatives in the city centre and moving forward,” he said.

Mr Donnelly recently secured support funding to remain closed during the ongoing pandemic after initially being turned down as an “essential business”.

But he said the absence of dates in the Executive’s plan to exit lockdown makes planning to reopen difficult.

“I’m caught between the Brexit Protocol and lockdown,” he said.

“My suppliers in England are saying they need three to four weeks’ lead-in time, but the goods have only got a five-week sell-by date; for example, traditional hand-made macaroons have a short shelf life.

“It’s a double whammy, a perfect storm, where we have coronavirus restrictions and no timetable for reopening on one side, and then how to get stuff in with checks under the protocol which demands a longer lead-in time.”

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Eugene Donnelly owner of Old Time Favorites sweet shop in Belfast. Picture date: Friday March 5, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER HighStreet. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Eugene Donnelly owner of Old Time Favorites sweet shop in Belfast. Picture date: Friday March 5, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER HighStreet. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Eugene Donnelly owner of Old Time Favorites sweet shop in Belfast. Picture date: Friday March 5, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER HighStreet. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Mr Donnelly said his children are the fifth generation to have worked or lived in the Smithfield area but he fears they will be the last.

“We are going to lose all these small and unique family businesses,” he said.

In normal times, the majority of customers for sweet shops might be assumed to be children, but Mr Donnelly said most of his customers are in their 50s and 60s, who remember the shop from their childhood.

His shelves are lined with 500 jars of sweets and he has recently been stocking American sweets to attract younger customers.

“We’re busier with people in their 50s and 60s, and pensioners who remember coming here with their granny,” he said.

He described toffee teacakes, midget gems, fruit rounders, mixed balls, brandy balls, clove rock and the original chewy cinnamon as being among his best-sellers.

“If they still make it, we sell it,” he said.

He said the business has adapted by starting a website, but described traffic as slow at this stage.

The website can be found at https://www.otfsweets.co.uk/


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