Plans for street dining outside bars and restaurants in the Ormeau Road area of Belfast, in an attempt to breathe life back into the hospitality sector, have sparked tension between supportive residents and local retail business owners who fear disruption to their trade.
The Open Ormeau initiative, a grassroots movement based in the leafy suburb of South Belfast, aimed to offer a lifeline to a sector who had been crippled by restrictions which attempted to curb the spread of the virus. Initially met with positivity amongst locals surveyed, the concerns of the business community, who had also faced disruption due to the coronavirus restrictions, soon became clear.
Now that Belfast is beginning to open up, many of these businesses are forced to operate at a much lower capacity than usual, to facilitate the 2 metre social distancing rule which remains in force.
Kerry Lynn, a volunteer for the Open Ormeau initiative, said that although the Ormeau Road is just over 2km from Belfast city centre, the road “feels more like a village”, and that a community effort to support local businesses would be an “opportunity to bring people together” as the area emerged from lockdown.
The plans involved the closure of two of the four lanes of traffic on one stretch of the Ormeau Road, one of the busiest residential thoroughfares in Belfast, to allow greater space for walking, queuing, and socialising in outdoor seating areas, with designated cycling priority across the reduced lanes.
But these plans raised concerns for owners of local retail businesses that a reduced traffic flow would see a significant cut to their trade, just as they were beginning to recover from the economic hit of the lockdown.
Michel Goggin, who has run a fruit and vegetable shop on the Ormeau Road for 28 years, agrees that in these years he has seen the area become a vibrant community, with access to a wide range of facilities. “Sometimes customers can walk or cycle to these businesses and sometimes, for various reasons, they need to drive and park close by”.
Goggin views the Open Ormeau initiative as a threat to his business, saying that in his experience, “local custom alone hasn’t been enough to keep my business going”. He, along with other small businesses on the street, feel that this initiative “would help a very limited few – at great cost to many others”.
In July 2020, an Open Ormeau survey of 995 Ormeau residents found that 63% of those surveyed were in support of the proposed initiative, with 28% opposed.
Despite attempts by volunteers to adapt plans to meet local needs, members of the business community felt their needs had not been taken into consideration during the conception of the Open Ormeau plan.
Plans are now in place to create a community forum from the Open Ormeau volunteers, many of whom were energised by the initiative to become involved in local causes, which Kerry Lynn hopes will help to “create a better community post-Covid”.