Belfast's retail revival: Shopping street Donegall Place recovering former glory
Belfast's main shopping street, Donegall Place, has suffered in the recession but it is beginning to experience a revival. BBC News NI's business editor John Campbell explains why.
If you stand on Donegall Place and look up you can see still see the names of the department stores that dominated when it was the city's undisputed prime retailing pitch.
The words Anderson and McAuley are visible in the stonework of an ornate Young and Mackenzie-designed building.
At the other end of the street, the former Robinson and Cleaver store lives on in the name of the restaurant that now occupies part of that building.
Those shops are long gone but the problem in recent years is that other businesses have left the area too.
This street has been hit by a triple-whammy of a retail recession, the opening of Victoria Square shopping centre in 2008 and the challenge from online shopping.
That has seen some units lie empty for months, if not years, at a time. But now there are signs of life.
Spanish fashion retailer Zara has recently expanded and refurbished its store.
US clothing brand Gap will soon be relocating from Castlecourt shopping centre, sportswear retailer DW Sports has taken 12,500ft of space and the shoe brand Skechers will also be moving in.
Perhaps the biggest reason behind this revival is rates, the annual property tax that occupiers must pay.
A recent rates revaluation exercise, the first since 2001, means that rates have been cut by as much as 55%.
That makes Belfast a much more affordable location to do business.
John Adgey from property agents Lambert Smith Hampton said it has made an impact.
"What you're finding on Donegall Place is that units that have been vacant for the past couple of years have been vacant purely down to their affordability.
"Now you have the the rates payable on those coming down significantly," he added.
That is echoed by Mark Shortt, the managing director of Therapie Optilase, which has been trading on Donegall Place for the last four years.
"It's been very challenging. Our rates have been at least 40% higher than they should have been, that's reflected in the revaluation we've had," he said.
"I think what we're seeing now in the city centre is potentially more businesses may open because rates were the biggest hindrance."
With all the changes in retailing it is unlikely that Donegall Place will ever be quite as prestigious as it once was.
But it is at least showing signs of recovering some of its former glory.