The iconic Austins building in Derry city centre is undergoing inspection to ensure that it is structurally sound ahead of plans for future redevelopment.
Remedial works to remove asbestos from the building have just been completed and the next step is to survey the building before detailed designs can be drawn up. Reoccupation will then be considered in due course.
Brendan Duddy of the City Hotel Group, which owns the building, explained: “We’re getting people in there to check the entire structure, to carry out a proper survey of the building.
“We’ll naturally review that and then look at a way forward, we’re fairly confident that it’s in good shape but we have to look at it before we can decide on anything else.
“In terms of reoccupation we’d like to see that as soon as possible but we have to look at the structure first. It’s like anything, you have to see where you’re at today before you can decide what you’re doing tomorrow.
“There are parts of the building that were closed down for some time because of asbestos. The place is spotless now, it’s completely safe, the building structurally is completely sound but it doesn’t mean that remedial work won’t have to be carried out to ensure it’s safe for another 100 years.”
Images independently drawn-up by a local architect had recently appeared online which included an extension at the top of the building. Mr Duddy welcomed the input saying it’s positive that people are taking an active interest in the building.
“People are saying here’s something you could do with a building like this, I think a lot of other cities have added modern extensions to older buildings that breathes new life and vibrancy into them. You can see that in Glasgow, Manchester and London,” he added.
The Derry businessman was reluctant to speculate on designs at present and said he’d rather take it one step at a time.
Discussions have taken place about the return of Austins Christmas window displays next month, Mr Duddy said.
In 2017 the vacant building was brought to life over the Christmas period when the famous shop front was used to showcase Santa’s workshop and “mystical toys” that came to life.
It reawakened feelings of nostalgia in adults who will remember the impressive festive displays and got young children excited about the arrival of Santa.
It was part of Derry City & Strabane District Council's magical Wonder Windows Trail – which saw some of the city’s most prominent shop fronts brought to life with performances, colours and animations.
However, in response to a Derry News query, a spokesperson for the Council said there will be no Austins window displays this year as its events team is focusing on activities "in and around the Guildhall Square and Waterloo Place".
The department store, which has stood in the heart of Derry’s city centre for 189 years, closed over three and a half years ago with the loss of 53 jobs.
It was opened by Thomas Austin in 1830 and remained in his family until the 1970s when it was bought by Derry businessman, Larry Hasson.
In November 2014 the store was placed into administrative receivership.
The receiver, the City Hotel Group, then sold the trading side of the business to Hassonzender Ltd and the store remained open until March 2016 when Hassonzender Ltd went into liquidation.
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