Coronavirus: Ballymena shops focused on survival as shutters go up

Coronavirus: Ballymena shops focused on survival as shutters go up

“Nervousness and excitement” – those were the prevailing emotions in Ballymena on Friday, as shops reopened after a two-week limited lockdown.

The County Antrim town’s economy has taken a battering in recent years with the closure of high-profile businesses like JTI Gallaher and Michelin.

Now it is reeling from the human and financial impact of coronavirus.

Hugh Black, part of the management team at the town’s Tower Centre, said he had “seen a lot in my time, but nothing compares to this”.

“I think the six million dollar question is are we going to pull back a lot of what we have lost in the two weeks, how busy is it going to be?” he told BBC News NI’s Good Morning Ulster.

One early resident at the centre on Friday morning was the big man himself – Santa Claus – who was sprinkling some positive seasonal energy, while Christmas trees are being used as markers to highlight the one-way system.

“That was a novel way of making sure that there was a defined line between the one-way system – it has worked,” Mr Black added.

“When we are open the trade has been relatively good and that week before we closed there were many of the stores saying they were hitting Christmas figures and more, but then when we closed obviously (that was) two weeks of very strong trade lost.

“I think we are all optimistic that people will have more money in their pockets this Christmas.”

Optimism and a can-do attitude has been needed this year.

Emma McCrea, of Ballymena Business Improvement District (BID) said it had been “a challenge for everybody” with various forms of support offered to retailers including a “shoulder to cry on”.

“Many of them have adapted with click-and-collect online services, I know right now everybody is just super-excited to get reopened and hopefully have a successful 13/14 days,” she said.

One of those who adapted is Libis McAllister, owner of Ultimate in Fashion, a bespoke ladies fashion boutique.

She admits she shed tears when she had to temporarily pull down the shutters.

“We are very glad to be opening now, but it has been a long, long year and a very stressful year,” she added.

“I have a very good strong family around me and they said ‘you have done this before and you can do it again – pull yourself together’.

“I have three lovely daughters, and they helped me to get a social media platform organised.

“We have done click and collect, we have developed our Facebook page – I feel now I have nearly got two different shops.”

McKillens has been a staple of the Ballymena business community for more than 90 years – managing director Thomas McKillen admitted his world had been turned “upside down”.

“Obviously the biggest constraint at the moment is finance, will you survive?

“You have a lot of staff that are dependent on your shop for their livelihoods and their families and you have your own family members.”

He said that he has contemplated whether the store would survive.

“I am the third (generation) in our family, my grandfather started the business, I have a son who is 31 coming forward with a young family he is also in the business – will we be the ones that end up pulling the shutters down for the last time?

“We are dependent on people coming out to shop.”

Eugene Reid, of Ballymena Chamber of Commerce, reflected on the town’s resilience and said “stakeholders” needed to “come together” with a vision for replacing the income that had been lost by factory closures.

“We grew up and were told if it wasn’t for Michelin and Gallahers or JTI as it became, the town would be struggling, but it shows the resilience of the people in the town and it shows how they have fought through those terrible circumstances when those jobs were taken out and those salaries were taken out of the economy.”

Libis McAllister is among those not willing to give up.

“We have survived many things in Northern Ireland, but we have come out and we are still here,” she said.

“I think there is a great future for retail and a great future for small retail.”

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