The warning came from the Association of Town Centre Management, an umbrella body which represents towns and cities across the United Kingdom and Ireland including 21 in Northern Ireland, during a meeting with Alex Attwood.
They were meeting the minister to launch a a strategy giving an eight point plan to inject new life into city and town centres across Northern Ireland.
The idea behind the manifesto is for Northern Ireland town centres to speak with one voice, clearly stating what they need if they are to be successful centres of community and drivers of the economy.
Andrew Irvine, Chairman of the Northern Ireland Region of the ACTM said: “As funding of public services is severely challenged, we need strong centres of community, accessible to all. They must provide community services, social infrastructure and not just large shopping sheds. Our town centres still account for two thirds of all retail spend. In a struggling economy it is vital that we realise how important town centres are to the economy.
“Some towns, such as Antrim and Lurgan are already blighted and left to charity shops and vacant sites. Others, such as Lisburn, are in severe danger of being abandoned in favour of nearby out of town locations. We have seen rents in our town centres drop an average of 24% in the last two years.
“Our town centres are competing in an unfair contest, with out of town sites offering thousands of free car parking spaces and lower non domestic rates valuation per square foot.
“We need joined up, streamlined government that does not allow planning consents from DOE that are contrary to, or in competition, with master plans by DSD. We need government that does not leave major planning policies in draft form for 10 years.
“In this manifesto, the towns and cities of Northern Ireland speak with one clear voice and highlight the ways to breathe new life into their economy.”
Mr Attwood said: “I am firmly committed to the development of towns and cities across Northern Ireland. I am in no doubt of the huge contribution they make to the Northern Ireland economy. In my view, there is a good argument that pound for pound, investment in urban regeneration is as effective an economic tool as other job interventions.
“Thriving towns and cities can act as a catalyst for inward investment and tourism. In recent years DSD has invested in numerous public realm schemes as well as working to make schemes such as Victoria Square happen by having the vision to assemble the site and bring a viable opportunity to the marketplace.
“We must continue to work in this way so that we are ready to capitalise on other opportunities, as Northern Ireland begins to emerge from the economic recession.”