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CRUNCH talks will take place this week between Ballymoney traders and senior government officials in a bid to halt the decline of the town.

Last week the Times revealed there are currently 203 vacant business premises in the borough and more than 800 across north Antrim as a whole.

This signalled a startling 10% rise in the figures in the past two years.

Last month Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland announced £45,000 funding towards the production of a masterplan for the regeneration of Ballymoney town centre.

The masterplan will set out to identify the strategic vision and regeneration opportunities in Ballymoney and how they can be realised.

“Ballymoney is a town which relies heavily on its independent traders, and it is important that we create an environment that protects what is there, but also allows Ballymoney the opportunity to diversify and strengthen what it can offer to its residents and many visitors,” said Mr McCausland.

“The assignment is out to tender at the minute and I am hopeful that a team consultants can be appointed by the end of the month to take this masterplan forward and provide the town with a vision that will allow it to grow and prosper in the future.”

Department for Social Development (DSD) officials will hear first-hand from Ballymoney’s business community on Wednesday (13th) at a meeting in the town’s council offices.

A letter circulated by the DSD ahead of the meeting reads: “The purpose of the meeting is to enable local traders and business people across Northern Ireland to put their views on the future of our local high streets, town and city centres to DSD senior officials working on a taskforce set up by Nelson McCausland MLA, Minister for Social Development.”

The letter said further meetings are planned locally “with the aim of reporting directly to the Minister the views and recommendations of Northern Ireland’s business community on how to improve the performance of our local high streets”.

North Antrim TUV MLA Jim Allister revealed the numbers of vacant premises blighting the centre of Ballymoney and neighbouring Moyle and Ballymena last week.

He said of the revelations:

“The continuing decline in our town centres and in business generally is illustrated by these disappointing figures,” he said.

“The recession is biting hard and high rates are contributing to driving many out of business. Such steps as have been taken are clearly not working.

“It is quite dreadful that across north Antrim there are over 800 former business premises now lying vacant.

“We can all see it in our high streets, but more than that it means many more hundreds of people previously employed in these businesses now out of work.”