Businesses reflect on challenging 18 months

WITH more than £74m of financial support through various grant schemes and rates holidays provided to businesses in the Derry and Strabane Council, local businesses have spoken of how the monies have helped sustain them during the pandemic.

It's been a turbulent 18 months for businesses, with many only recently reopening their doors with the lifting of restrictions.

Lockdowns and subsequent localised restrictions meant that for the greatest part of 2020 and then into this year, the doors were firmly closed in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Finance Minister Conor Murphy was in town last week to to see first-hand how the local business community has benefitted from the financial support offered by his department during the pandemic.

For most, the financial support was the difference in being able to remain in business.

Three of the local businesses visited by the Minister have shared just how crucial the funding has been in allowing them to reopen and look forward.

Among in the sectors worst affected were hospitality, soft play and childcare facilities.

At Playstations indoor centre at Bradley Way, staff at the popular facility, which had remained closed for much of the past year-and-a-half, are still trying to navigate their way through changed times.

During his visit, owner Patricia Conway highlighted some of the difficulties faced but stressed the financial support from government has been invaulable.

"Like all buisnesses we have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and have been in lockdown, with our business closed for a considerable amount of time over the last 18-19 months," she saud.

"So, we've been able to access the rates holiday, which has been a great help as well as the Loalised Restrictions funding.

"The support that we have received has been very much welcomed and has enabled us to reopen our doors."

Elsewhere, the hospitality sector was also severely impacted throughout the past year but local hotelier Johnny Kelly is looking ahead positively.

Thanks to COVID grant funding the Fir Trees Hotel, he said, has come back stronger.

"The pandemic had a detrimental affect on the Fir Trees Hotel in the sense that we were closed for approximately nine months in the last year and a half," he said.

Mr Kelly said he was delighted to have the Minister visit the hotel to see first-hand how the funding has assisted.

"I was in a position to say to him that the support coming from his office was immensely important to taking us through this very, very difficult period," he added.

"The business support grants scheme, that coupled with the rates holiday, left us in a position where however difficult the period has been for us we have come out the other end at this point quite strong and we've very grateful and thankful to the Minister for that."

Not all businesses closed, with some facing challenges of a different nature.

Staff at McColgan's Quality Foods in Strabane were tasked with maintaining the food supply chain in the midst of a global pandemic, but it was one they met head-on.

William McColgan explained how COVID grant and rates support has helped sustain his business, both at the company's factory base on the Dublin Road and the Food Hall in the town centre.

"We're coming out of the lockdown period now and taking stock of where we are post-pandemic," he said.

"A challenging time for all businesses of course but we had the particular duty of keeping our part of the food supply chain in place.

"It's great to have some assistance coming out of the pandemic. It has been challenging from a staffing and from a supply chain point of view, coming out of the tail end of it but it's certainly helpful that we have some relief from the rates holiday, both for the Food Hall and at the factory.

"It's also been helpful to have some COVID relief grants from the department and of course, it's helpful to have the Minister come on site and hear from us directly what our concerns are and how we can help provide employment and prosperity here in the region."

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