Retail boss praises resilience of traders after cordon hit footfall
The Primark fire and its catastrophic aftermath created "the hardest trading conditions in a generation", Northern Ireland Retail Consortium boss Aodhan Connolly has said.
A safety cordon put in place around the charred shell of the five-storey, Grade-B1 listed building meant 14 nearby businesses, including Primark itself, were unable to trade for months. There was also a drastic dip in footfall in the city centre.
Retailers affected included Aldo, Skechers, Zara, McDonald's, Spar, Ticketmaster, DV8, Coffee Kiosk, Argento, Tesco Metro, Abacus Beads, City Picnic and British Heart Foundation.
Mr Connolly said the cordon "effectively split the city centre in five during those months when Royal Avenue was closed" and "that created really severe problems with footfall".
"It's taken a lot of struggles to get retailers back where they were," he said.
"From August until April we had the hardest trading conditions - and the biggest threat to trade - that we've had in Belfast city centre in a generation."
He added: "If Royal Avenue was split for even another six months you would've seen more businesses go to the wall. As it was, a lot of them were just surviving by the skin of their teeth."
A temporary protected pedestrian walkway opened on December 3, 2018 to connect Donegall Place and Royal Avenue.
Five days later Primark reopened within the Commonwealth House extension at Castle Street.
Meanwhile, a temporary Primark store opened at Fountain House, Donegall Place, on April 16 this year.
And Castle Place junction reopened to traffic just over a month later on May 22.
Mr Connolly said Primark reopening "was a big turning point because it's a huge footfall driver" and "it was a good sign that everything was going back to normal so confidence was up". But he conceded that traders are not out of the woods yet.
"We still have a huge building site in the middle of the city centre," he said.
"The biggest credit needs to go to the shoppers and shopkeepers who've shown great resilience."
Two months ago the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service said it had completed its "extensive investigation" into the cause of the fire and had concluded that the blaze was "accidental" - but we still don't know what caused it.
Lord Mayor of Belfast John Finucane said the fire was "a major incident with wide-ranging implications for all who live in, work in and visit Belfast".
"Like every city, Belfast is experiencing difficult economic trading conditions," he said.
"Traders are facing ongoing challenges, particularly those in Royal Avenue and Castle Street, but the reduction of the cordon, the removal of the temporary walkway and the reopening of Castle Junction to pedestrian and single-lane vehicular traffic have all aided recovery and helped reconnect shoppers with retailers and other local businesses."
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Health and Safety Executive said: "As the HSENI investigation into the Primark fire is still ongoing, we are unable to make any comment."
A spokesman for Primark said the company will continue "to assist the HSENI's investigation into the cause of the fire".
"We recognise that Bank Buildings holds significance for the local community in Belfast and we are pleased with the progress made to the building restoration project so far," he said.
"Since the fire we have significantly reduced the size of the cordon which opened access back into the city at Castle Junction, Castle Street, the area around Donegall Place and the corner of Fountain Street.
"We made a £500,000 donation to Belfast City Council's City Recovery Investment Programme and have also restored our trading presence in the city centre with our Castle Street and Donegall Place stores."
Retail NI chief Glyn Roberts said it is time the public received "the full facts" about the virtual destruction of Sir Robert Taylor-designed, 18th-century landmark, which Primark acquired 40 years ago.
He added: "It's not that I think that there's any big conspiracy about what happened. I'm more interested in any health and safety issues that need to be learned by other retailers."