Belfast Telegraph

As business face an uncertain future, prospect of retail ruin for Belfast is very real

By Claire McNeilly

It was a stunning architectural beauty we hardly noticed. But now that it's a blackened, ruined hulk, we can hardly take our eyes off it.

Yet that signature clock somehow remains an ironic landmark, still defiantly recognisable above the ashes, stretching towards the skyline, marking time until disaster struck Primark's Bank Buildings flagship nine days ago.

But as time was threatening to have run its course on Royal Avenue's centrepiece retailer that sunny Tuesday morning as summer was drawing to a close, alarm bells went off in the entire local retail sector. And the noise is still deafening. Yesterday, Belfast City Council announced that the safety cordon around the ghostly, ravaged department store will stay put for the next four months, where 14 of the surrounding businesses are currently unable to trade.

In a handful of nearby stores that remain open, fear is growing - and justifiably so - as the sound of ringing tills fades into the recesses of memory and reports abound of takings down by as much as 80%.

The enforced exclusion zone means there'll be no through access for pedestrians this side of Christmas, which is awful news for a beleaguered sector.

For just as the dust settles on the House of Fraser takeover, and what that will eventually mean for the anchor tenant in Northern Ireland's flagship Victoria Square, local shoppers are once again in mourning.

Make no mistake: for the people of Belfast and beyond, Primark is so much more than a big beast of a store, a bargain-hunters paradise or a penny-pinchers dream.

It's a shopping institution, a bastion of affordability for hard-pressed consumers and a beacon of comfort for those in need of the retail therapy experience on a budget.

Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey has said they're working to find alternative premises for businesses and arranging initiatives for affected traders to provide advice in respect of rates and employability.

Belfast City Council and its city partners are also planning a campaign "aimed at sustaining visitors to the city and supporting retailers to run over the next four months".

The council also said engineers will be assessing the site before drawing up a plan for next steps which could include building a bracing solution to secure Bank Buildings. Then, and only then, will it be possible to determine if the facade can be saved. Even if it can - and that's a big if - the question should be whether Belfast can be rescued from retail ruin?

In these straightened times, when consumer budgets are stretched to breaking point, and where online shopping is a massive threat, will Primark's lost footfall leave the high street entirely?

Belfast Telegraph

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