An Armagh landlord has warned that the “personal service” and experience of small business in the city could “be lost forever” if something isn’t done in time.
Earlier this month non-essential retailers were given the green light to reopen but the invite hasn’t been taken up by all businesses with many choosing to keep them down – some with no intention of raising them in earnest again.
Last week Armagh I brought you the news that two popular Co. Armagh bars were up for sale, as well as The Halfway House in Banbridge, and unfortunately this looks as if it could be a trend, with the worst still to come.
Take the example of 8 Upper English Street, a period property built in 1750; it is now owned by Marc J. Dermody-Lennon and his mother Brenda Lennon – it’s a building which has been connected to the family since 1850.
Marc’s grandmother, May Sherry, opened up her hairdressers at the premises in 1932 and this year would have been 88 years of continuous salons in the building – the most recent incarnation being Carol Ann’s (main image).
A week before lockdown and a picture began to emerge.
Speaking to Armagh I Marc explained: “Our tenants contacted us and said that they had to close and asked if we could come to some kind of arrangement on the rent.
“After getting some advice, we offered a 44% rent reduction with the remaining amount to be paid off weekly starting three months after the shop reopened. So, in my eyes a very fair and generous offer.”
Two months on, Marc was once again contacted by the tenants who handed in their notice, citing the length of the lockdown, the uncertainty of reopening, the cost of refurbishing the shop to make it comply with the social distancing rules, and the fear for their own health, along with that of their staff and customers.
Marc sought help from the Business Service at ABC council, Invest NI and political parties but was informed there was little to no assistance for those in his unique position.
“The government has been very generous by paying wages, paying rents and furloughing people,” Marc added.
“Even the landlords who have mortgages, get assistance in the form of ‘mortgage holidays’ but what happens to the majority of landlords who have no mortgages, who have inherited their property? What happens to the landlords who have lost their tenants because of Covid-19?
“There is no help for landlords like me.
“Sadly, as shops and businesses reopen people in Armagh, and all over the country, you will start to notice many shutters will remain shut and much-loved businesses will no longer be there.
“Just like in our case, we have lost our tenants, but they have had to also let their staff go and so this spiral starts and all these knock-on effects will now follow; staff who have lost their jobs will not have the same money to spend, they might not be able to pay their own rents or mortgages.”
Marc believes that “exorbitant rates”, lack of parking – especially free parking – will inevitably lead to a lot of shutters in Armagh and other cities staying down.
Speaking on Armagh – a city he holds dear to his heart, he said: “Personally, I think with the uncertainty at the moment, the social distancing in all these small Georgian and Victorian built shops all around town it might be difficult for many.
“As I said, our building does not look it but was built in 1750, and when you look how small the shops are on either side of us, Armagh Jewellery to the right has a sign up only maximum two people at any time and they also have a sign in the window saying ‘retirement sale’.
“There have been different jewellers in that building for 80 to 100 years and the dry cleaners to the left of us has a sign in the window saying only one person at any time. We might be lucky as our shop is a good size, not too large and not to small at around 1100 sq ft”.
Looking ahead, Marc implored residents of Armagh to remember the little shops and businesses; the butchers, the fruit and veg shops and the small clothes shops in the city and for them not to go “running back to the big supermarket because it is so convenient”.
“Once these small and specialist shops and businesses close, their experience and personal service will be lost forever and Armagh will get more and more of the dreaded fake shop fronts.”
However, he was quick to point out that he did not think this was the responsibility of shoppers.
“Rates need to be lowered drastically for the small businesses and provide the much-needed parking and free parking, or city centres all over the country will die at a much faster rate than they have been,” he added.
“These last few months have changed a lot of people’s attitudes towards shopping. On the one hand, we have seen queues stretching around car parks for people waiting to get into the big supermarkets, making people rediscover the high street and specialist shops, so hopefully they will stay loyal to their new butcher or fruit and veg shop.
“On the other hand you have people who have not been shopping online before who have now discovered, or been forced to use it, and might just stick with that. The rising rates will be the death of our inner cities if people neglect their small and specialist shops.
“So it is just as important for people to open interesting shops, because there is only a certain amount of demand for charity shops, cafes, hairdressers and barbers a city needs, so we also need diversity in our city to bring people into the centre.”
Marc also wanted to wish Caroline and Ann, who had been tenants on Upper English Street for nearly 11 years, along with all their staff the very best in the future.