Derry’s city centre may face a lot of challenges but, with growing visitor numbers and the massive potential of the City of Culture victory, it also has many opportunities.
This is the view of one of the city’s leading businessmen, Declan Hasson, of Austins of the Diamond, who believes the “unique vibrancy” associated with Derry’s commercial heart can ensure its long-term future as the city’s main shopping district.
“Derry city centre has an atmosphere which you don’t get in out of town shopping,” he says. “People will always want to go into cities to shop.”
Turning to the ongoing economic downturn, Mr. Hasson says that, up until about 18 months ago, the recession hadn’t kicked in locally.
“There was a hint of tough times towards the end of 2008 but there was no real impact until mid-2009,” he says.
“We had prepared ourselves for its arrival. Our strategy changed with more focus on promotions, special offers, discounts etc, as we are well aware that people shop on this agenda.
“This strategy was working quite well until Christmas last year when we had 25 days of snow on the ground. Every retailer was decimated. We never experienced anything like it before.
“One third of a year’s business occurs in December and to lose this was devastating. It also had a negative knock-on post-Christmas.”
However, according to Mr. Hasson, things have started to pick up in recent weeks.
“Since Christmas, the strategy had had to change again.
“We have had to redouble our efforts to reinvigorate retailing and, hopefully, this is starting to show positive results.”
Declan Hasson agrees with his fellow independent retailers in the city centre that the rates burden they currently shoulder is “totally unfair.”
That’s why he is supportive of new budget proposals to impose a levy on out of town shopping developments to boost independent businesses.
He’s also of the opinion that existing “misguided” planning policy must be reformed to support city centres.
“We need those in authority to get serious about the future of our city centre and the many, many jobs that it supports,” he says.
However, he’s not convinced that the number of ‘To Let’ signs in and around the city centre is the “perfect barometer” by which to gauge its overall health.
Turning to the future, Mr. Hasson believes that, with real investment, a fair deal in planning and rates and a “bit of innovative thinking”, the city centre can flourish.