19th Dec 2019 in Business

Pictures by Kaja Choma 

No one can fail to notice the amount of construction taking place in and around the Cathedral Quarter.

From the renovation work being carried out around Donegall Street to the erection of the new, state-of-the-art Ulster University, the level of building work that’s currently going on is unprecedented.

But there’s one area of CQ still in need of a serious amount of TLC.

Despite all of the investment being put into CQ, Smithfield Market is still a shadow of its former self and now seems to be the ‘poor relation’ of its equally iconic nemesis, St George’s Market.

Belfast’s market tradition was established in the 18th century when the city became the main port in Northern Ireland (taking over from Carrickfergus). As a result, the range and quantity of both imports and exports grew rapidly and by the 1900s, Belfast boasted around a dozen markets, selling everything from vegetables and pork to straw and live poultry.

Initially, the main markets were those in High Street, Cornmarket, Ann Street and Poultry Square (now more elegantly known as Victoria Square).

Opened in 1823, Smithfield Market quickly established itself as a major centre for the sale of cattle, pedlars’ goods, grain and hides. Within a quarter of a century, the variety market was rebuilt on the site of the old corn and hide market and quickly became the ‘go to’ place for a raft of stalls packed full of old books, pictures, records and sundry junk.

The market remained on that site until it was destroyed by firebombs in 1974 during ‘The Troubles’ and it would be fifteen years before the market reopened in its current location.

One trader who has ‘rolled with the times’ is Gary McCann, proprietor of the Army Surplus Store.

“My store has been owned by my family since the 1940s” said Gary. “We’ve had the same name above the door for that entire time and have been retailing army surplus goods that have been used by the army, the navy, the prison service….you name it.”

Gary has watched over the years as Smithfield has morphed from resembling St George’s Market on the site now occupied by Castle Court to its current location, which was built in 1985.

“Smithfield really is something special,” he said.

“The area continues to change and the new university will bring a lot of new people here. There’s a lot of talk about what they might do with this area but, worryingly, on the north west ‘master plan’, which looks at the area from Donegall Street to Wellington Place, there’s no mention of Smithfield! They’re talking about building a new site for Smithfield, but I don’t know how they’re going to keep us open if they’re rebuilding.

“From what I can gather, the council are planning to get rid of a lot of the open spaces in this area, such as the car parks, and their way of doing that is to create an open space here, such as a piazza. It seems a bit weird to me to be honest. Smithfield may not be the most attractive of places, but it is a completely full shopping centre and, as we all know, there aren’t many of those about at the moment. I defy anyone to tell me about another retail centre that is completely full.

“We do have one empty unit which was occupied until recently and I’m sure it won’t be long until it’s occupied again. We really are a mix of quirky retail units and this gives Smithfield a real charm that’s often missing in today’s retail world. There are a couple of retro shops – a toy shop and a comic shop – which provide that ‘olde worlde’ feel – but there is also a Filipino store, which has attracted a completely new clientele and a hydroponics shop. Despite today’s difficult trading conditions, the centre is thriving and we’re all surviving, but it isn’t easy.

“No one comes to Smithfield by chance. People come to our stores specifically looking for us. Belfast is attracting so many tourists these days – which is fantastic – but we don’t get enough tourists coming here. I think part of the problem is that there’s nothing to welcome anyone to this area. You come out of Castle Court and it’s dark – particularly in the winter. I’ve actually seen people come out of the back doors of Castle Court and go back in immediately because it’s so dark.

“Retail is difficult at the moment as it is. The whole sector has changed dramatically. I’ve watched other recessions come and go over the years but there’s just so much competition now. Belfast seems to have become a raft of charity shops and coffee shops, but Smithfield is quirky and not high street, so we don’t really fit in anywhere. I don’t have any direct competition in terms of what I stock, but retailers in general are fighting against things like online shopping. People used to come into the city centre and go to the one Next store, or the one Marks and Spencer store. Now you can go to these shops in any town or city in Northern Ireland. Or you can order online. It’s all about survival now.

“I’m old enough to remember the queues outside Argos in Ann Street! There was one Argos then and people were literally queued down the street. It was amazing. I think at one point that I estimated there were about 1000 people queued up outside the shop. Now, you can go to Argos anywhere in Northern Ireland, including their concessions in larger stores like Homebase. Shoppers have so much choice now.”

Given the amount of competition he and the other traders in Smithfield face, Gary said he’d like to see if become successful retail centre once again.

“Every retailer in the Smithfield building is thriving, but we’re doing it without any assistance from the council. I’m your classic sole trader. I mop the floors, I clean the windows, I do the accounts” explained Gary, adding: “I sell the goods. It’s all me. Marketing really isn’t a major part of the business, but I’m still selling the goods. Having said all of that, we have been in business for more than 70 years and I’ve seen pretty much every other retailer come and go and I’m still going. I can’t think of another retail business in the city centre that has been going longer than us – with the same name and the same core business. We’re selling the same stuff as we were selling in the 1940s. That’s some going by any standards.

“What I would say is that the whole area needs a major overhaul. Smithfield really should have been part of the city centre rather than part of the Cathedral Quarter. I think that the CQ is very service and night-time orientated. Retail isn’t a big deal in CQ and I think we suffer for that.

“I think we need to attract more people to the area. I had suggested initiatives such as a market one day a month in the main car park to raise awareness of the area, but nothing happened. Smithfield could so easily become the Temple Bar of Belfast, but there’s no will to make it so.

“The murals in the area really are something else. Many artists would give their right arm to be able to display their work in an indoor arena, where it’s not going to be damaged by the elements but, as I say, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive on the part of the council to do anything with Smithfield. It’s such a shame because the area has so much to offer.”

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