I have had occasion to be in what is referred to as “Bangor town centre” a few times recently and it was in general a pleasant experience. It always struck me, even when I served in its Council, that Bangorians can be a bit hard on their own town. However, I would venture to suggest that is partly because they have a peculiar view of what Bangor is, and indeed what its “town centre” is.
Firstly, Bangor is (by Irish standards) a large town but it is essentially at the end of the line. Unlike places like Lisburn, Banbridge or Ballymena, it cannot hope that people from elsewhere will just pop in for half an hour or so – people have to have a specific reason to visit. This has implications, particularly for what it must offer.
Secondly, after its comparatively rapid expansion during the Troubles (when it was seen as something of a “safe haven”), the geographical and demographic centre of Bangor is in fact Bloomfield. Indeed, Bangor may now be the only town in Western Europe most of whose residents live outside its so-called “ring road” (really a throughpass now)! This too has implications – in line with residential locations, we have business parks, wildlife centres and several major leisure offerings springing up outside the so-called “ring road” and thus away from the so-called “town centre”.
Thirdly, Bangor’s nighttime offering cannot be turned back a generation. The youth of Northern Ireland used to descend on Bangor from all arts and parts again because of the aforementioned “safe haven” perception. The end of the Troubles and the revival particularly of the vastly bigger (and, for most people, nearer) Belfast city centre has changed all that permanently. The past is the past in that regard.
So, what can be done about this? More or less what is being done about it, thankfully.
In fact, I have long believed the area around Bangor High and Main Streets leading from Ward Park through to the Station should be re-designated the “Marina Quarter”. This would be primarily a daytime (but occasionally also specific nighttime) leisure offering, ranging from outdoor facilities (such as Pickie Park) to indoor facilities (more or less as now proposed for Queen’s Parade) with a significant marine element (such as the boat tours now available). This should be accompanied by a deliberate attempt to bring small businesses in the service sector to that location, as it is now decently served by restaurants and coffee shops already and well connected by bus and rail, but much cheaper than Belfast city centre – there is no reason PR or law firms could not be based there, for example. Indeed, the now dilapidated Flagship Centre could perhaps be best reinvigorated not by shops as a retail centre but by service sector start-ups as a business hub. This in turn would bring more people to the area during the day, helping existing hospitality and retail businesses to thrive.
The thinking, in other words, has to go beyond what was there before and also beyond “shops” (twenty years from now most retail offerings will consist of a single Northern Ireland store supported by an internet-based delivery network incorporating new technologies such as 3D printing anyway). In Bangor’s case, provided the designation is right, with determined leadership to follow through roughly on the current course, the future could be very bright.