Efforts are under way to assist businesses in Belfast city centre that have been hit by Tuesday’s devastating fire at The Bank Buildings.
Many shops and offices in the vicinity of the blaze, which completely destroyed the city’s Primark store, were still closed today as several streets around the partially collapsed building remained cordoned off.
Dozens of businesses on Royal Avenue, Castle Street, Castle Place, Fountain Street and in Donegall Arcade have been impacted, with the cost of lost business expected to run to many hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Some of the city’s most popular retail outlets have been affected, including Tesco, Argento, HMV, TK Maxx and Sports Direct, while several pubs, coffee shops and fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and KFC have also been closed during the emergency services operation.
Following high-level talks at Belfast City Hall this afternoon, the president of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce said the safety cordon around the burnt-out building would be reduced to a zone of approximately 45 metres, allowing some businesses to reopen today.
Speaking after the meeting, which involved the Business Recovery Group, affected traders, city council officials and emergency services personnel, Rajesh Rana said: “The advice from Building Control is that the safety cordon will be reduced today to a zone approximately 45m around Bank Buildings. Shops and cafes that are outside of this reduced cordon will be able to open as normal from tomorrow morning.
“Belfast Chamber is working to collate a list of alternative vacant premises in the city that traders can relocate to on a temporary basis. We will also be liaising with Land and Property Services to negotiate rates exemption for businesses that fall within the cordon, as they will be unable to trade, and we will provide guidance and practical support to traders on how to claim rates relief.”
Stressing that the chamber will endeavour to provide information, support and assistance to traders affected by the fire, Mr Rana added: “I wish to emphasise the overarching message is that the city centre remains open for business. Belfast remains a great place to visit, and we encourage shoppers and tourists to keep coming to our capital city.”
Shoppers and city centre workers reacted with shock and sadness today as they stood and watched firefighters spray water onto the charred remains of the landmark building at Castle Junction.
With the smell of smoke still filling the air, many couldn’t believe the extent of the damage caused to the Victorian property, which was completely gutted by the fire that broke out in the Primark store on Tuesday morning.
Nicola Brice, who is originally from London but now lives and works in Tyrone, said she cried when she saw the building ablaze.
“I hope they get up a petition to make sure the building is saved,” she said.
“It’s a beautiful building and if they get rid of it that’s over 200 years of history gone.
“I hope they don’t do what they did in Oxford Street (London) and pull the old building down. You can’t bring it back once it’s gone. It’s the heart of Belfast.”
David Bowman, a retired electrical engineer from Omagh, said: “It’s dreadful altogether. The inside of it has gone obviously, but maybe they can save the facade.”
Sylvia and Karen Allen from Glengormley agreed that every effort should be made to try to save the exterior of the building.
“It was a beautiful building, a beautiful store. It had been there so long too, we’ll miss it. It’s such a shame,” Sylvia said.
Derriaghy man Darren Seaton said: “I hope they are able to save it as it’s a landmark in Belfast.
“There are so many jobs at stake so it’s hard for all the workers who worked there, some of them who’d been there all their lives.”
Harry and Mary Toan from Carrickfergus were among the onlookers who’d gathered in Castle Place yesterday morning.
“It’s a tragedy. People could be out of work or may have to move somewhere else. It’s a big loss to Belfast,” Mary said.
Roisin O’Hara from Dungiven, who was in Belfast for a day’s shopping, added: “It’s just so sad. I’d actually come up to Belfast shopping and had planned to go to Primark and it’s just awful what’s happened.
“My husband was actually working on it – they were doing some of the renovations – and they have all been affected with their work.
“Everybody got out safely and that’s the main thing. When you see it, it could have been so much worse.”
Around 100 firefighters battled the blaze at the Primark store, which is believed to have started on the fifth floor or the roof of the property shortly before 11am on Tuesday.
Customers and staff were successfully evacuated from the building and there were no reports of any casualties.
The interior of the listed building has been completely destroyed, but the facade is still standing, prompting calls from the public and architectural heritage groups for it to be saved and repaired, if possible.