Castle Street traders left devastated by Primark fire ask people to support their small businesses
On August 28, a massive fire gutted Primark's flagship Belfast store.
The blaze not only destroyed the iconic Bank Buildings but had a devastating effect on the livelihoods of the numerous independent traders running the diverse range of small businesses in the shadow of the desolate site.
Marie Louise McConville speaks to traders in the historic Castle Street who are fearing for their futures, amid concerns footfall will soon disappear.
DESCRIBED as the gateway to the city centre from west Belfast, Castle Street is one of the city's most well-known streets.
From pizzas and plums to eye exams and iPhones and from the `best burger in Belfast' to cakes, carpets and colours and cuts, shoppers have long been drawn to its electic range of shops.
Having stood the test of time, Castle Street traders usually greatly benefit from a busy passing custom, those coming into the city and leaving, stopping by to grab that `one forgotten item' on their list.
However, almost three weeks on from the Primark fire, business has taken a direct negative hit.
Once a bustling thoroughfare, over recent weeks they find themselves crying out for support.
With the street now partly-cordoned off, shoppers can no longer use it to access Royal Avenue, instead, having to turn off along Queen Street or Chapel Lane - affecting `passing trade' for businesses further down Castle Street.
With the cordon around Primark set to remain in place for at least four months - taking in the busy Christmas shopping period - these traders now fearing they will not survive that long.
Some of the business owners have now spoken out about the devastating effect the Primark fire has had on their own businesses, many of which are family-owned and have been passed down through the generations.
Staring ruin in the face, they have come together to ask the public to come and support them.
Among them is Justin Milligan, who owns tech repair shop, iPhix.
Having traded at Castle Street since 2015, the business employs five staff, including a number of the 37-year-old's family.
Since the fire, the businessman said footfall is down by a massive 90 per cent.
"Everyone gets off buses and black taxis and walks down here. All of that has now stopped because nobody can walk down the street," he said.
"We are not covered for this because it is not shutting our business".
Mr Milligan, who is a father-of-two, said plans to take on extra staff for Christmas were now on hold amid an "uncertain" future.
"We are open for trade," he said.
"I would never want to shut. I have livelihoods to cover. It's very uncertain now. It's coming up to our busiest time. Obviously, all that is on hold now".
Mr Milligan said passing trade was "completely gone".
"I can't see some traders finishing trading this year. It's very important to start off the New Year on a good footing and I don't know if we will be able to do that".
The businessman appealed for shoppers to try and support the traders of Castle Street.
"Everybody is still open for business. The street is open so just get down and do a bit of shopping".
Optometrist Michael Connor is also feeling the lingering effect of the department store fire.
Owner of Conway Opticians in Castle Street for the past 15 years, he has already been on the phone to the bank to discuss more flexible business loan rates.
The Lambeg man, who employs five staff, said businesses in the street could be looking towards "a very grim, dark four months".
"We have lost all our walk-in business," he said.
"We were growing our business by 15 new customers per month and that is due to go down. We will know more by the end of September/October.
"It could be a very grim, dark four months".
Mr Connor (38) said there was "uncertainty" around the future.
"I'm going to have to take a salary cut first before my staff and I've been on to the bank about more flexible rates for business loans," he said.
"Land and Property aren't doing anything. It's all talk. There's talk of a financial package. Nobody is putting their hands in their pockets".
He added "I feel I would have been better inside the cordon. I would have been getting more. Insurance said it would have been better if I was inside the cordon, it's black and white, they would have paid me.
"I want Primark to open the new extension, which would open the west part of the city where we are.
"The street is still going. Come up and support us".
Father-of-two James Neilly, who owns Pizza Boutique in Castle Street, said his lunch time trade had disappeared in the aftermath of the Primark fire.
Having opened the restaurant just over a year ago, the 37-year-old said the business model had been "based on the fact that the largest retailer in the city" - Primark - was on their doorstep.
The Belfast man said the restaurant had to close for three days in the immediate aftermath of the blaze, which was "absolutely awful".
"We had stock depreciating in value that we had the cost of replenishing and the labour associated with getting stock ready after having to purchase it twice, and then the loss of trade as well, all pretty hard-hitting for a business of our size," he said.
"We tailored our offering to casual dining, coming in with a Primark bag, that was a big part of us choosing to be there".
Mr Neilly said that while he is thankful to those who have called in or booked tables to support his business, the future is "uncertain".
"People are coming in to support us, which is fantastic," he said.
"We didn't see that coming.
"Customers are motivated but our worry is the cold winter nights are on the way. We worry about what happens as it starts to get a bit darker, Will people fancy a walk around to us?"
The business man, who said he believed the gutted Bank Buildings "should probably" just be knocked down to "let Belfast get back to being Belfast as quickly as possible" called for shoppers and diners to come out and support the Castle Street traders.
"Take a walk down," he said.
"We do something different. We run a fast-food pizza restaurant. We use endorsed local suppliers from the north and all over Ireland. I would say our product is worth the detour.
"Continue to be the amazing Belfast that you are and show all the traders in Belfast a bit of support".