And so it goes on.
Another blue-chip retailing firm – Dunnes Stores – is preparing to quit Portadown, once the shopping envy of provincial Northern Ireland, but now something of a charity shop mecca.
Take a look around. The main streets are pitted with ‘for sale’ and ‘to let’ signs. Charity shops abound, empty premises assault the eye. And the High Street Mall – where Dunnes Store has been the anchor tenant – bears the scars of the general exodus.
Multinationals have come and gone – having forced some local retailers out of business. There was real hope in the past when shopping centres sprang up – Magowan Buildings, The Meadows (also depressingly unfilled) and The Mall. There was widespread optimism when the Irwin family created it on the site of their former bakery, which they moved – lock, stock and barrel – to Carn.
Dunnes’ pending departure is, perhaps, the most depressing of the lot. They certainly aren’t a fly-by-night firm. They had a ‘feel’ for the town, coming to Magowan Buildings circa 1980 at the height of the Troubles – toughing it out when local ghouls mounted the occasional protest at shoppers because Dunnes HQ was in Dublin.
Things looked even brighter when they anchored the showpiece Mall. They created a hive of activity in ‘The Mall Square’ which will change infinitely with their departure. The new owners of the Mall – Brittas Properties – are anxious to set up a meeting, and just maybe they’ll persuade them to stay. But judging by the vibes from Tuesday’s meeting with the 50 staff, when redundancy notices were handed out, that seems unlikely.
The Mall management optimistically tells us that well-known stores are likely to fill some of the voids in the complex and we truly wish them well. Portadown badly needs a retailing boost.
The reasons are many. Online shopping is on the increase and Rushmere is a major attraction on Portadown’s doorstep. But at the start, Rushmere – then Craigavon Shopping Centre – was a struggling venture and much effort and expertise went in to making it a success.
Dunnes faced tough competition with Tesco and Asda in town. The store will be sadly missed as a convenient centrally-situated supermarket – but insufficient numbers of shoppers used it.
The criticism of officialdom by Portadown 2000 chairman Brian Walker is well aimed. It’s not as if Portadown is a backwater, given the magnificent range of industrial firms situated here, some expanding almost by the month.
But the same effort hasn’t gone into retailing. As Mr Walker says, the area generally has a dowdy look about it. Local and provincial politicians – and their officers – don’t seem to have put in the required effort. Not like smaller towns like Banbridge and Armagh when locally-based ‘champions’ seem to have done their bit.
One has to look back to the not-so-long-ago when Portadown was blown to smithereens by a massive IRA bomb in May 1992. Local council chief executive, the late Eric McKinley (Portadown board-and-bred), called his troops together and the town was up and running in record time. Retailing survived the blast.
Perhaps we need more of the McKinley spirit to set us back on the road to recovery in 2015.