Traders are not opposed to retail superstores in Derry, the man leading the charge to safeguard the city centre’s future is keen to point out.
In fact, Martin McCrossan, Chair of the Derry City Centre Traders Forum - a group formed last year to lobby on behalf of independent traders in the area - has made an open invitation to the retail giants to set up shop in city. But when Mr McCrossan says the city, he means the heart of the city. He’s talking about bolstering the centuries-old home of local trade by increasing competition, footfall and city centre vibrancy.
However, therein lies the problem for the DCCTF as many multinational retail giants have their sights set on locating to what Mr McCrossan calls “big tin huts” at easily accessible out of town sites. The traders claim that any acceptance of planning applications for massive surperstores at sites such as Crescent Link - where both Asda and Sainsbury’s propose to build - could effectively kill off any hope of a city centre resurgence in a newly regenerated Derry.
The DCCTF welcomed the recent decision by the Northern Ireland Planning Service to refuse plans for a Tesco superstore at Buncrana Road and have met with Environment Minister Edwin Poots and local planners to lobby for a similar decision on the Asda and Sainsburys applications.
“These companies should not be allowed to throw up big tin huts on out-of-town sites,” Mr McCrossan says.
He adds: “We have no objection to the new plans for a new Tesco at the existing store site at Lisnagelvin as it is classed as a district centre and that must be protected.
“In that respect there are questions hanging over those Derry city councillors backing the Asda and Sainsburys projects for half a mile down the road. Do they want to protect the district centre? I’ll be pleading with the minister for the environment and local councillors and MLAs to oppose these plans.”
But Mr McCrossan and Derry’s independent traders are keen to point out that their stance should not be viewed as one of “anti-development”.
“We need to accommodate superstores too, we can’t just say no, no, no. We can accommodate them in the city centre. Just look at what local businessman Garvan O’Doherty did in bringing Primark into the city centre - and that’s something he must be congratulated on. He placed Primark in the heart of the city centre and showed what can be achieved with a bit of imagination. We need that kind of imagination from retail giants who want to build in Derry, imagination to adapt to the current retail offering and work to improve our city centre. Tesco had to pay £150m to get into Gateshead city centre and the project has worked, a move like that can work here too.”
Mr McCrossan remains optimistic about for the future: “It’s not too late to protect our city centre - millions and millions of pounds have been spent here recently on regeneration projects including the public realm scheme, the Guildhall restoration, St Columb’s Cathedral, First Derry and Claremont Church - the tourism board must also be congratulated on all its good work for the city.”
McCrossan, who runs local tour operator City Tours, is a former city centre commercial property owner. He currently represents the interests of independent city centre traders on a voluntary basis.