Belfast traders look to the future as the Primark recovery begins

Disruption will continue for weeks but the blockade of Belfast city centre is nearing an end
Disruption will continue for weeks but the blockade of Belfast city centre is nearing an end

Another week and, again, attention turns to Bank Buildings and the Primark store in Belfast’s city centre.

It’s been two months since the listed building was all but razed to the ground in a blaze that burned for three days and left little more than a badly damaged outer skeleton of what had been a thriving, exuberant business.

After the following weeks of hand wringing and entirely justifiable gloom, there is now at least some hope for the traders across the city that there will be some cheer this Christmas.

The walkway linking Royal Avenue and Donegall Place will bring back some sort of normality to what the city council’s report on the Primark application graphically described as “four cul-de-sacs” in the retail heart of the city.

The news that Primark intends to re-open in its extension on Castle Street in December will also be a source of cheer.

Highlighting that the city has been losing as much as £3 million a month as a result of the fire, the report said efforts now to move the process on were urgently required.

In the same week that Debenhams announced its intention to close up to 50 stores across the UK in the next two to three years, anything that hinders any store’s ability to trade freely presents a critical threat to both the individual companies and, as we have seen since August 28, the whole retail community.

The report’s assertion that footfall at CastleCourt plunged by 49% in the weeks after the fire is all the more shocking given that it includes one of the city’s key retail car parks.

In all, the experience has been a shocking example of the calamitous impact that one event, albeit catastrophic, can have.

Alongside the effort of Belfast City Council and, of course, Primark itself many have been calling for some sot of support from central government.

Given our own locally elected officials’ ongoing lack of interest in the daily life of the province, it remains to be seen whether Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is prepared to extend any largesse to the city in Monday’s budget.

Regardless, it is a source of massive relief that something is now, at last, happening.