Ballymena 'has largest proportion of empty shops in NI'
Ballymena has the largest proportion of empty shops in Northern Ireland, according to a new report.
The County Antrim town's vacancy rate has grown from 17% to 27% in the past year.
But the figures have been disputed by the head of Ballymena's Chamber of Commerce and by the town council.
Thomas McKillen, who runs a shoe shop in the town centre, said it was sending out the wrong message about the town and was not the case.
"To tell me that there is one in four shops empty at the minute, that is not the case," he said.
Mr McKillen put the vacancy level at 17% or 18%.
"The problem is that it is a message which sends out the wrong vibes about Ballymena," he told Radio Ulster's Talkback.
"It paints a picture which is concerning for retailers in town, when we are struggling to make Ballymena as attractive as we can and one of the best places in Northern Ireland.
"I would hate to think people would not come because they are getting a message that is merely sensation. Ballymena is still one of the best shopping destinations in Northern Ireland."
In a statement, Ballymena Borough Council said: "We define the 'town centre' as that designated by town planners.
"We independently measure vacancy rates in this core town centre area on a quarterly basis, and these figures show the Ballymena town centre retail vacancy rate is at 17.9% as of October 2013, well below the figure of 27%.
"As our vacancy figures do not take into account 'out of town' spaces, this gives a more realistic picture of the retail experience in Ballymena town centre.
"Our vision for the town centre is to build on Ballymena's reputation as a great place to shop. A number of initiatives are under way, in partnership with independent retailers and other bodies, to continue to improve the overall shopping experience and attract investment through revitalisation, regeneration and shopping events."
Nicky Finnieston from commercial estate agents, Lisney, stood by the 27% vacancy figure.
Speaking on Talkback, he said: "We compare by going on the ground and walking the town.
"The study is very comprehensive. We counted exactly the same terms of the sample as we have done in the last three years and those numbers have been double checked and scrutinised because of the jump."
Mr Finnieston said this could be a temporary situation.
'Snapshot in time'
"Shops close and are re-let. Belfast last year was the main story with one in four shops vacant, this year it has come out very well and is one of the most improved.
"This is a snapshot in time, things will improve. But those are the numbers."
The report said "prohibitive" business rates remain the "primary factor" for the deterioration of prime locations in some town centres.
Retailers looking at costs "will more readily locate in out of town or more secondary locations," it said.
Bangor and Lisburn have also seen increases in vacancy rates to 26% and 25% respectively.
Stephen Dunlop, the town centre manager for Bangor and Holywood said he would dispute the figures too.
"We do have some empty shops, but like my colleague in Ballymena, I would dispute the figure that has been put out. We do a six month audit of town centre, our vacancy rate is around 17.5%. Lisney has calculated and included the out of town centres," he said.
Belfast, Enniskillen, Coleraine, Magherafelt and Londonderry were among locations that recorded an improving situation.
Lisney says Northern Ireland-wide, the problem of empty shops "looks to have stabilised."
But the regional average of 19% is still the highest in the UK.
The report also reveals a six-fold increase in commercial property transactions over the past two years - "a clear indication market recovery may finally be under way."
So far in 2013, more than £150m of properties have changed hands.
Last month, Tesco stores in Craigavon and Newry were sold for a combined £54m.
Lisney said demand, particularly for institutional investors like pension funds, was outstripping supply for the first time in years.
Many prospective buyers are from the Republic of Ireland, particularly with properties in the £1m to £3m price range.
The report also warns a shortage of Grade A offices in Belfast centre is limiting options for foreign companies thinking about bringing jobs to Northern Ireland.