13 December 2012

Newry and Armagh continue to experience challenging and difficult market conditions in common with the majority of towns and cities in Northern Ireland. However, taking advantage of their strategic location, both cities continue to work hard to maximise their commercial, social and cultural potential as their close proximity to the border offers easy access to an all – Ireland market. In fact, in order to highlight this potentially lucrative market, Inter Trade Ireland recently reported that despite the current economic climate, cross-border trade is presently valued at £2bn and accounts for two thirds of small business exports from Northern Ireland.

In an attempt to optimise this potential, the Newry City Masterplan was launched in October 2011, which contains significant redevelopment and regeneration proposals including the creation of a world-class waterfront based on its city centre river and revitalising the creative hub surrounding the Town Hall, Albert Basin and Arts Centre. The city witnessed the first benefits of this project when the initial stage of the Masterplan was completed in September with the launch of the £2m Public Realm Scheme in Monaghan Street and Hill Street by Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland.
Additionally, another noteworthy property-related story for Newry was the granting of planning permission for the redevelopment of Greenbank Industrial Estate in May of this year by Environment Minister, Alex Attwood. The developers, Birmingham-based Parma Investments Ltd, submitted the application in November 2009 and the proposal includes plans for a number of retail units including a food superstore of 95,000 sq.ft., cafes, restaurants, an enterprise centre and 50 apartments with the potential to create up to 1,130 new jobs.  Also, works to the recently approved extension of Newry’s premier shopping centre and leisure complex, The Quays, are due to commence in the near future. This extension will add a further 13 retails units comprising c. 135,000 sq. ft. and a 600-space multi storey car park at an estimated cost of £35m.

There is no doubt that these proposals will rejuvenate Newry City, however, due to the continuing difficulties in the debt market, there is some debate as to when these projects will commence. However, a welcome boost for the city is the fact that due to the VAT hike in the Irish Republic from 21% to 23%, which came into effect at the start of 2012, an increase in cross border trade is likely for the busy Christmas period, which will be warmly received by local traders and businesses.
Armagh is also keen to attract inward investment and greater number of visitors especially as the Northern Ireland Tourism Board acknowledges that the city has a significant role to play in terms of “tourism geography”.  The £5m Armagh City Centre Regeneration Scheme has been a huge success for the city and works are due to commence on the regeneration of The Shambles Yard at a cost of £1.2m, which will improve social and economic development at the landmark site.
However, more significant is news of a planning permission application for the re-development of Armagh Gaol that was submitted by the Trevor Osborne Property Group, in partnership with Armagh City & District Council and The Prince’s Regeneration Trust earlier this year. The combined £25 million investment is a joint private and public venture which will see the renovation of historic Grade B+ listed buildings which will provide a 65-bed, 4* hotel with a spa and conference facilities as well as restaurants, bars, shops, and an education and heritage centre. It is also envisaged that it will enable residential development and shared public areas; if planning approval is granted, works are earmarked to commence in 2014.

Unfortunately, Armagh has struggled in recent times to establish itself as a retail destination and this is apparent by the current number of vacancies in the city. One of the main reasons behind this is that Armagh experiences significant retail leakage to neighbouring cities of Craigavon and Newry and it is imperative that civic and business leaders address this issue as a matter of priority.

There is no doubt that Newry and Armagh are endeavouring to attract inward investment and maximise the potential of increased tourism and cross border trade. However, as with many cities in the Province, market conditions are extremely testing and as such, it is vital that these areas continue to receive the necessary support in order to ensure that continued growth is achievable.

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