A survey has revealed that there are now almost 130 empty businesses properties in Derry’s city centre.
The report by City Centre Initiative found a vacancy rate of 13 per cent across the town, which is actually two per cent less than the Northern Ireland average.
Online shopping and business costs, including rates, have been identified as major contributors to the current situation.
The figures were released during the presentation of a Vacancy Report on Commercial Properties within Derry City Centre before the Council’s Business & Culture Committee on Tuesday.
The committee granted a request from Council officers to develop a ‘City Start Programme’ in conjunction with Belfast City Council, which would see a wide range of new supports to develop and protect business activity in both city centres.
The Committee was told that there has been a series of high profile retail closures within Derry’s city centre over the last number of years. Kevin O’Connor, Council’s Head of Business told Councillors: “These have ranged from long-established iconic businesses such as Austin’s Department Store and more recently Gormley’s Shoe Store.”
City Centre Initiative, he added, conducted an Empty Premises survey in July, and out of a total of 929 units, 128 were vacant.
The Committee was told however that Derry’s vacancy rate is expected to decrease over the coming months with a number of schemes underway or under development, including the Clarendon Bar, Holiday Inn Express, Multi-Modal Hub and developments at Ebrington.
A report brought before the committee stated: “The growth of online shopping and the dominance of major online retailers such as Amazon and Ebay has undoubtedly changed the way in which consumers purchase goods and services and has had a knock on impact in our town and City Centres.
“A range of other issues have been cited by businesses as impediments for doing business with Town and City Centres. Among the concerns have been issues in relation to non-domestic rates, on-street car parking and footfall.”
A Northern Ireland-wide Empty Premises Rate Relief project, which meant that any business who moved into an empty retail property that had been unoccupied for 12 months or more was entitled to 50% rate relief for the first 12 months, has been suspended, the committee was told.
The Council had been proactive meanwhile, it was stated, in developing regeneration initiatives such as the £8m Townscape Heritage Initiative Phase One and Two to help develop 32 retails units, 43 apartments, a hotel and 1750 sq ft of office accommodation.
An application for Phase Three targeting Carlisle Road is currently in development, while an Environment Improvement Scheme for the Bishop Street area is currently being worked at.
Department for Communities meanwhile are in the process of developing an Inner Walled City Public Realm Plan, while the Council’s Business team are providing local retailers and firms with advice, support and signposting.
SDLP Councillor Shauna Cusack said: “Obviously any accommodation that hasn’t got anyone in it in the city centre is concerning.
“We do appreciate there is a change in people’s buying habits however I think rates is the main stumbling block for anybody setting up in the city centre.”
Colr. Cusack proposed the Council write to the Senior Civil Servant to see if the currently halted rates relief for vacant properties can be extended.
Sinn Fein Councillor Mickey Cooper said former Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was already in the process of developing a much more imaginative approach to deal with these issues, and said there was nothing to stop the Council urging the civil servants to use the groundwork done on flexibility for businesses large and small.
He also cited Waterloo Street as one among several examples of a regeneration “success story” in Derry.
Colr. Cooper said some businesses also had a gap in profile in terms of online presence, and said efforts should be made to ensure all businesses are aware of the range of supports in relation to this available through the Council.
“For some different traders, including independent traders, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of their income is online. We aren’t going to go back to traditional footfall of the past except at times like Christmas.”
Colr. Cusack said it was irrelevant what a Minister was going to do. “The fact remains there is nobody there to do it now,” she said.
Colr. Cusack’s proposal was slightly amended to include assistance for other areas beyond the city centre where the same issues are being experienced and to take into account the previous groundwork undertaken.
Colr. Cooper seconded the proposal and said Civil Servants can still progress on the “bedrock” of the Minister’s work. The Committee also gave the go-ahead for Council officers to continue developing a City Start Up Programme in conjunction with Belfast City Council.
The key aim of this is to support the development of new businesses in both council areas that have the potential to grow and employ staff in the fashion, retail (including markets), food and tourism sectors. It will also contribute to animating both cities and addressing challenges such as high street vacancies. The objectives will be to provide high calibre, tailored, one-to-one support for participants to further develop the skills and knowledge required to grow their business; provide infrastructure to address barriers to business growth in the sectors identified to develop commercially sustainable business models for participants; to increase participants’ awareness of the importance of sustainable business
practices; to provide subvention/support initiatives to help accelerate growth through the development of business cases for council support with rent, equipment, marketing etc; to provide opportunities for new businesses to access opportunities that will support the development of their business e.g. access to new markets, product development support; to align and add value to any other complimentary support that is available over the lifetime of the programme such as support from Invest NI, Tourism NI, Blick Studios, and Retail NI etc.