TV star and retail guru Mary Portas has recommended getting town centres to run more like businesses
TV star and retail guru Mary Portas has recommended getting town centres to run more like businesses

COOKSTOWN Chamber of Commerce is to lobby the Assembly to bring retail guru and TV star Mary Portas to the Mid Ulster town and ‘work her magic’.

With a hard-biting recession, Cookstown Chamber president Brian Jordan is lobbying the local MLAs and Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland to bring the nationally renowned expert to the town.

“We are a thriving town but we do not want to sit back,” said Mr Jordan who has already contacted the MLAs from all political parties in Mid Ulster.

Mr Jordan said her advice could be invaluable. “We want to know what could be done to enhance the town, what advice she can give to business owners. Cookstown is unique with a lot of family owned shops some going back generations. As a guru she could help market the town.”

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland said he was considering inviting Ms Portas to Northern Ireland to advise on the content of an action plan to regenerate the country’s town centres.

He said he was taking a number of steps having considered the Portas review of UK High Streets which she had been tasked to do by Prime Minister David Cameron.

He said the focus “should be on putting the heart back into the centre of our High Streets, re-imagined as exciting social hubs for shopping, learning and socialising”.

However Mr Jordan’s concern is that the focus will be on the east of the province and Mid Ulster will be forgotten.

Speaking about Ms Portas’ reputation as a guru, Mr Jordan said: “Her magic dust has brought something to the party. The people she has worked with have been rejuvenated.

“We want an outsider’s thoughts on how we can develop and market our town,” said Mr Jordan.

He also revealed that he had previously contacted Ms Portas a year and a half ago but at that time she was unavailable. The Chamber also lobbied Senator Fergal Quinn of Quinnsworth fame.

“The Chamber have been very active in trying to get a guru,” he said.

Mr McCausland said his department would be setting up a taskforce of senior officials to respond to the “difficult trading challenges facing Northern Ireland’s High Streets”.

He said he would meet with other ministers as well as business and local government representatives to develop a Northern Ireland Executive action planMr McCausland said he would invite Mary Portas to Northern Ireland to advise on the content of the action plan.

He added that a report and action plan would be presented “to the NI Executive by April 2012 for endorsement”.

Mr McCausland said: “My department already has an extensive programme of public realm works across the towns and cities of Northern Ireland.

“This has greatly improved the environment for local people, attracting shoppers and potential investors.

“A case in point is Newcastle, County Down, where footfall in the town has increased dramatically following the completion of the public realm works there.

“I am keen to explore lessons from the Portas review to ensure we are doing all we can here to maximise the potential of our own town centres as vibrant places for people to live, work and play.”

The Portas review made a number of recommendations including improving the management of High Streets with new “town teams”, affordable town centre car parking and disincentives for landlords who leave shops empty.