An Armagh trader is calling for the introduction of a series of initiatives – from increased free parking to bicycle halts – in a bid to improve the overall experience for people coming into the city.
Last week Armagh I brought you news that calls had been made to erect marquees on Market Street in a bid to improve the atmosphere and help businesses in the city centre.
This came after council had agreed to waive fees for the creation of pavement cafes throughout the borough.
Since then, a socially distanced meeting of the Armagh City Centre Management, involving approximately 10 traders, was conducted in the Shambles Yard to discuss this and other issues.
A number of ideas were raised during the course of the meeting, which were aimed at improving access to the city, tackling congestion and removing the inconvenience – and perception of it – by many who would consider visiting Armagh.
The issue of Market Street being closed off was discussed and some of those present felt that it would boost business for cafes on the street, however, some concerns were raised about how it would impact on traffic through the city – already a major issue prior to the Covid lockdown – with traffic all traffic from Thomas Street being turned down an already congested Scotch Street.
When contacted by Armagh I, Councillor Sam Nicholson, who was in attendance at the meeting, said it was a case of “throwing ideas out on the table” to see what worked best for all businesses, citing the idiom ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, basically meaning that an improved economy will benefit all participants.
“I’m not saying pedestrianise Market Street during the day but I see Market Street, it has really become this restaurant / evening economy quarter in Armagh over the last number of years,” said the Ulster Unionist representative.
“It could become more than just a drive-thru for cars; in terms of an urban environment you need flexibility. You could close down the street to traffic say on a Thursday evening only and you could have street entertainment, shops open later where people come to Armagh for that nighttime experience.”
He added: “Initial thoughts were that the restauranteurs would occupy it and it would give them additional capacity for dining outside. I’ve sat in a number of restaurants on Market Street and you look out at parked cars – it doesn’t give you that city centre experience. I think everyone in that meeting was open to ideas, trying things as a pilot to see what works and what doesn’t.”
In terms of Thomas Street traders, they wouldn’t necessarily benefit from something on Market Street, and the same can be said for businesses on English Street and around the Shambles area but I have floated the idea with Council about opening up the car parking spaces in front of businesses.
“What I mean by that is closing off the space in front of businesses like the Craic’d Pot and giving it to the businesses as an outdoor space.
“You go around the City; there are some you can’t do it. You could lose about half a dozen car parking spaces in the town centre but in turn you’d create these kind of enclosures for businesses to utilise how they like.
“Again, let’s try it and run it as a pilot to see how it works. If it doesn’t work, no harm done but if it does then why not create a city-wide scheme with funding through the Department of Communities.”
There were calls to have the bin lorry collection changed to take place at around 8am, or after 5pm in the evening. Collection currently happens on a Thursday afternoon and the view was expressed that this is also going to add to increased congestion and put people off coming to the city.
It was suggested that bicycle halts be provided to allow the growing number of cyclists who wish to come to Armagh somewhere to safely lock their bike and go about their business – in the hope of making the city more cycle friendly.
The lack of free parking was also raised with those present hearing the argument that more provision would mean more footfall and revenue for businesses as they try to fight back economically after months of remaining closed.
It was suggested that further temporary spaces could be provided at the entrance to the Palace and within and along the avenue to the Demesne to allow people the option of parking and making the short walk to the shops without having to drive directly into the city.
Since that meeting, Council has agreed to scrap off-street car parking charges for the remainder of the summer.
Ulster Unionist Councillor Sam Nicholson was opposed to the idea of opening up more spaces next to the Friary remains and cited his objections based on his assertion that this was an historical site.
“I’m not totally against the car parking suggestions but I did explain there were issues about creating a car park at the entrance of the Palace,” Councillor Nicholson told Armagh I.
“Council have spent a lot of time, money and resource on creating the Palace Park which is a very special outdoor environment for families to go and experience.
“And you have the car park across the road; you have one on down a bit and you have the Rugby Club car park which sits empty most of the time. This is not to mention the planning difficulties you’d have about getting a car park at the front of the Friary entrance. It sounds simple but there’s maybe another way at looking at the parking.”
He added: “I went to a public meeting not so long ago on car parking at the Market Palace Theatre and there were three people who turned up to it.
“There was a consultant there outlining the findings of a study and he wanted to get feedback, so to me looking at that, there needs to be more engagement with business owners.
“[The consultant] is telling us there is more than enough car parking spaces in Armagh and Council are looking at a debt of £10m from Covid; it doesn’t make sense when you have other ways of delivering it.”
The traders also pointed out that there was a need for council-owned parks to remain open longer, particularly to benefit those opening in the evening, such as cafes, restaurants and bars.
Presently the car park at the Shambles Market is closed daily by a member of staff at 6pm. It was argued that this too put people off as anyone availing of the Shambles parking had to stop whatever they were doing and race off before this time if they do not want to find themselves locked in.
Among those who had raised a number of points was local publican Bernie Rafferty, whose bar is on Thomas Street.
Armagh I contacted Mr Rafferty who confirmed that some of the ideas put forward were not wholly accepted.
Mr Rafferty said there was a need “do right by all the businesses in the town” and said every option and avenue needed to be explored so that everyone, rather than “a select few”, would benefit in what is going to be a very challenging number of months ahead.