Belfast Telegraph

Tear Primark Bank Buildings down and save Belfast business, says city retailer

By Jonathan Bell

The chief executive of Belfast jewellery firm Argento has pleaded for the Primark Bank Buildings shell to be demolished to save trade in the city.

He attended a meeting at City Hall on Wednesday where traders in the city were told the exclusion zone around the building - which has forced the closure of 14 businesses including his own - will remain in place for at least four months.

"Belfast closed for Christmas - the main thoroughfare - it is simply unacceptable," Peter Boyle told the Belfast Telegraph.

"I am all for preserving historic Belfast... I've restored a property myself.. but this can't be allowed. They need to tear it down and tell Primark it should be rebuild to look exactly the same."

Fire broke out on the roof of the five-storey city centre store last Tuesday (August 28). It took three days to extinguish and work is ongoing to assess the structural integrity of what remains. Work was ongoing on a £30m extension to the store and it is thought to be largely untouched.

"There's the stink that is driving people away from the city and if you close that area of the city down for four months there is a real fear people won't come back.

"It's called established business because we have worked to build a customer base - shopping is a habit. You can't close down for at least four months and expect those people to turn up again on the Monday morning.

"Zara, McDonald's and Tesco drive big amounts of people into the city as did Primark - and they are all closed.

"We may be ok, we will look after our staff and as we are in the cordon and our insurance may cover us. But those just outside - some who had seen trade drop 90% - will not get a cent.

"There is a feeling the preservation of the building is the main priority but at what cost?"

Mr Boyle pointed to a similar incident in Derry when the historic Tillie & Henderson clothing factory was demolished within days after a series of arson attacks at the beginning of the century.

He added: "We are nine days after the fire here in Belfast and nothing has been done. They say it is four months for the exclusion zone. You are talking £130,000 for a new shop, I could sign a lease for four months in another part of the city and then they shorten the cordon in November, allow us to open and leave me with two shops?

"Take my business out of it. Belfast trade is struggling and to close this part of the city down in the run up to Christmas - when 40% of annual trade is done - will put people out of business.

"We were told as a matter of fact the zone would remain in place for four months - but no one seems to have thought 'no that can't happen'.

"It is unaccepatable. They need to find another solution."

Andrew Webb, chair of Belfast City Centre Management also attended the meeting. He said there was a lot of frustration but did not get the impression the priority was for the preservation of the building and it was more a case no one was in a position to access the building and therefore determine what should or could be done. 

"There is no heritage input at this stage. It is a dangerous building that is why there is a need for the cordon. As I understand it no one has been able to get in to assess the damage and therefore work out what can be done."

He added: "It was a very downbeat message delivered from the council and there was a lot of shock and anger. A trader needs to trade especially for the busiest four months of the year.

"It's not just those businesses in the cordon or just outside. Footfall is down across the city. We need to stress more now than ever it is open for business.

"But you can see that public safety is paramount and everything must be done to minimise the amount of time the cordon is in place."

Mr Webb said there was real concern for those small independent retailers affected.

"They won't be able to cope for any length of time with no business or a downturn in trade... significant livelihoods are at stake, there needs to be a quick solution found."

Belfast Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey said the council acknowledged the anger and frustration felt by businesses and they would work to get that exclusion zone removed as soon as possible.

Primark said it was committed to working in Belfast and was considering options for relocating in the city.

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