A number of small traders situated in the shadow of Belfast’s burned out Bank Buildings are bearing the brunt of the disruption caused by the devastating Primark blaze on Tuesday.
Although just outside the safety cordon in Castle Street, the businesses are behind a police ‘road closed’ diversion checkpoint, and most potential customers appear unaware some shops are still open for business.
One shop manager told the News Letter there is almost a sense of bereavement in the area that the city had lost a business she described as “the heart of the city”.
Conway Opticians, Fruiterama and the West sandwich bar are all badly affected by the “ghost town” feel to that end of the street, Pat Moore of Conway Opticians explained.
“There is a real sense here at the minute that we’ve lost the heart of the city,” she said.
“It actually feels like there’s been a death. I was going to say it’s like a Sunday around here at the minute, but it’s actually worse than that. There is no one coming this far down the street because they think everything’s closed.
There is a real sense that we’ve lost the heart of the city
“It’s like a ghost town. Some people told us they saw the ‘no access’ sign at the top of the street and thought that meant no one could come down.”
The remaining facade of the landmark five-story building is now at risk of demolition following the ferocious blaze.
Yesterday afternoon firefighters were still hosing down the charred embers of the shop’s contents while structural engineers assessed the safety of structure.
Although the safety cordon has now been scaled back to include only 14 businesses, the disruption to free movement through such an important shopping area has adversely affected many more retailers.
Shops in Castle Street can still be accessed from Queen Street but the additional walk for those negotiating the cordon from Royal Avenue has proved too much for some people with mobility difficulties.
Once the scale of the emergency became clear, staff at Conway Opticians began phoning clients to cancel appointments.
“This morning we were ringing people to let them know we were open, and to tell them how to get in to the shop, but a lot people just haven’t turned up,” shop manager Ms Moore said.
“It feels unreal, and quite sad, and just really, really awful.”
She said the fire has been particularly shocking as the traders in Castle Street had been enjoying the buzz created as a major refurbishment of the historic building progressed.
“We have been watching all the work going on and the progress, which has been very exciting. But then coming in this morning and seeing water still being sprayed on the building, and hearing about all the businesses that can’t open because of this, it’s awful.
“The bigger Primark was going to bring so much more life to Castle Street. I suppose you could say it was going to ‘upgrade’ Castle Street.
Ms Moore said her thoughts were will the people who work in Primark – many of whom are clients of the opticians.
“We get lots of Primark staff in here and we’ve heard quite a few horror stories. One girl was going on holiday after her shift finished [on Tuesday] and had taken her holiday stuff into work so she could head off straight from work. She lost everything.”
Up to 80 firefighters and 14 fire appliances were tackling the blaze at its height. The exact cause of the fire remains unknown.
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts stressed that the city centre is “still open for business,” and insisted that it would “bounce back” from this serious setback.
Shop workers’ union officials have been meeting Primark’s owners to seek assurances that the welfare and job security of the affected employees will be a priority.
Meanwhile, an industry body representing the hospitality sector has said they are exploring “all options” in the hope of securing compensation for loss of trading income.
Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said: “We sympathise and recognise the fire was a tragic loss for both Primark and Belfast. However, the surrounding area is home to many small businesses that cannot sustain the financial losses caused by forced closures. With many depending on the end of month trading period to make a profit, we cannot allow tragedy to turn into a crisis for these businesses”.