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Flood-hit businesses need urgent aid to reopen

Traders in a Co Down town devastated by floods four months ago have warned that many businesses will not reopen unless promised financial aid is paid as a matter of urgency.

The commercial heart of Downpatrick was deluged with water in late October and early November, with a depth of almost 2.5 metres in some places.

Some 50 businesses were immediately devastated by the flood waters, while a further 50 suffered due to road closures at the time and a dramatic drop in foot fall in the months since.

Newry was also badly hit, with part of its commercial centre flooded, as well as the centre of Portadown in Co Armagh.

Proportionately, with a population of around 12,000, the town of Downpatrick was hardest hit.

Many businesses in Downpatrick were badly hit by floods
Shutters of businesses in the town remain shut four months on

Many of the flooded businesses remain closed, with the shutters down on what should be prime retail sites in its main shopping area.

A grant scheme offering up to £100,000 (€116,000) per business finally opened for applications last Tuesday, four months after Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris announced a £15m (€13.8m) package to help businesses in the three locations.

An initial £7,500 (€8,700) hardship payment was made to more than 140 businesses to help with clean-up costs, but since then it has been a waiting game.

Images of Ciara Douglas wading through knee deep water in Downpatrick with communion dresses over her shoulder went viral on RTÉ’s TikTok channel with more than 2 million views.

Owner of Communion shop Making Memories, Ciara Douglas, is carrying communion dresses held above her head from her flooded premises in Downpatrick, Co Down

— RTÉ News (@rtenews) November 2, 2023

Her daughter helped rescue dresses from her shop Making Memories for You as the waters rose.

Four months on, the memories remain raw.

“Apocalyptic scenes was the first thing that I thought of,” Ciara recalled.

She said: “It wasn’t pleasant to walk into your business and see it underwater. It just became a matter of getting in and getting as many customers dresses out as possible.

“It was a race against time. The water was rising, so when we went into the water, it was about knee level, by the time we were coming out it was it was coming up sort of close to your waist.

“The floors of the shop had lifted and the drawers and units had started to float around inside. It quickly reached the point where we just couldn’t go back in.”

Ciara Douglas of Making Memories for You lost much of her stock due to flood damage

Ciara lost much of her stock, including several boxes of new deliveries that had not even been unpacked.

Her business has reopened, with her range of communion dresses and suits hanging on rails lent to her by St Vincent de Paul.

She has welcomed the opening of the grant scheme, with applications closing on 22 March, but there is anger at process and the time it has taken.

“It is very bureaucratic and the forms aren’t exactly easy to fill in. A lot of business people in the town have expressed concerns about the process,” she said.

Ciara’s business has reopened with dresses hanging on rails lent to her by St Vincent de Paul

“People are also annoyed it has taken so long. There needs to be more done. This was an epicentre of a town, it wasn’t just part of a town that was flooded, it was the whole town centre.

“Just look around at the number of shutters that are still down.

“The town, never mind the businesses, we need the money into the town to get the businesses up and running so that they’ve got something to make their shop appealing now, to come back to, to make the town more appealing to come back to.

“It’s needed ASAP, not three or four months later after a flood. This should have been done within a month.”

MLA Patrick Brown and Ciara discuss forms needed for the grant application

On the day RTÉ News visited, Ciara was at her shop counter with Alliance Party Assembly member Patrick Brown discussing the forms she has to fill in for the grant application.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the town is on its knees,” he said.

“We’re four months on now and many businesses have not received a penny of financial support.

“The damage that was caused just ripped the heart out of the town.”

Mr Brown has serious concerns that a combination of the length of time it has taken for the promised financial aid to be made available and a dramatic drop in foot fall could mean many of the flooded businesses will never reopen.

He said: “I have major concerns over how they’ll ever be able to fill some of these units that are at flood risk again without substantial regeneration investment.

“It could still take months for this money to come through after forms are submitted.

“And this is coming at a time when the council is putting the rents up, and businesses are having to pay more to trade in Downpatrick at a time when they’ve come through the pandemic, cost of living crisis, and inflation and now they’re hit with the floods and it’s taken four months before they’ve even got the application form to start getting some of that money back that they lost last November.”

Patrick Brown said the lack of a Stormont Executive has hampered the turnaround in supports

The MLA said the fact that the Stormont Executive was in suspension during the floods added to the problem.

He said: “There is no doubt that the lack of an Executive has had a devastating impact on the turnaround time with this.

“I mean, if you look at the Covid-era schemes, they were turned out very quickly, in a matter of weeks in some cases when the money was secured.

“The money for this was secured back in November by the Secretary of State but businesses are still waiting for it.”

Paul McCartan’s family has run a shoe shop since 1926

Paul McCartan’s family has run a shoe shop in the town for almost a century.

“We’re the third generation of the business, we’ve here since 1926 and we’re very proud to say that, and this has probably been the toughest time,” he said.

“We’ve seen some tough times, my dad seen some tough times and my granddad, but this is probably been the toughest we’ve seen, to be honest with you.”

The shutters on their shoe shop in Market Street are closed. The interior of the now abandoned store is almost bare.

Water marks can be seen on the walls, up to a metre high, and there is a strong smell of damp.

Paul McCartan has been forced to abandon his shoe shop due to flood damage

Signs on the shutters direct customers just two doors away to their sports shop, which is now dual purpose.

A friend has allowed them to display some of their shoes in the front window of her shop across the road as they no longer have their own front window display area.

Paul said many of the businesses that have managed to keep trading are struggling to cope.

“There’s still a lot of shops closed, so the footfall in the town has dropped dramatically'” he explained.

Mr McCartan’s sports shop now has dual purpose

“I would say in the same period, the same VAT quarter which we just finished in, compared to last year, we’re probably down turnover wise about 35%.

“So it’s it’s tough times, and in business it’s a fine line between keeping the door open and the door closed.

“This money should have been through months ago. We’re under real pressure. As I say we’re down 35% and you can’t sustain that, you can live with it a few months, but you can’t sustain that long term.

“So we need to get open again, the whole town needs to get open again. They need to get the money out to us, and get it out to us now.”

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