Business

Tuesday 26 September 2017

How to play the fantasy Nama game

From futuristic urban farms to whiskey for the 'cougar' market, our high-flying experts share their visions for the State agency's land bank

AS Nama acquired a tranche of loans with a face value of €5.2bn from AIB, Bank of Ireland, EBS and Irish Nationwide last week, the Sunday Independent asked an economist and several well-known business people to propose imaginative uses for land and other properties that may end up being owned by the State.

They all emphasised how Nama's portfolio must be cleverly managed in ways that have a social value and that will create opportunities to stimulate the economy. These are their 10 best suggestions:

Europe's first vertical urban farm

"The infamous €412m Irish Glass Bottle (IGB) site would be an ideal location for Europe's first vertical urban farm," says Declan Murphy, co-founder of green business group The Ecology Foundation. Such a farm involves growing crops in a multi-storey building, similar to a huge greenhouse.

Building such an iconic development on the 10-hectare site would reinforce our image as a green island and our business strengths in food and agriculture.

IFSC-type hub for food production

In addition, Ireland has an opportunity to be the Silicon Valley of food production R&D, according to Jim Power, economist at Friends First. This could conceivably be located beside the vertical farm and would include incubation space for artisan-type food producers.

Irish Whiskey

distillery

"Irish whiskey is becoming cool among educated, confident and wealthy professional women -- the "cougar" market -- in France and the US. They enjoy mixing a single malt whiskey with Pepsi or cranberry juice.

"A distillery modelled on the Guinness Brewery or Bushmills Visitor Site and located on the IGB site would attract high-spending tourists," says David Horgan, director of Cooley Whiskey.

Theme parks

A new Harry Potter theme park has opened in Disneyland in Florida, while a Ferrari theme park is opening shortly in Abu Dhabi. Every year Irish holidaymakers visit Oakwood, Legoland and Alton Towers in Britain -- but there are no such attractions here.

"We should also create iconic tourism attractions based on themes of Irish agricultural traditions and our history and culture," says Power. "Some kind of attraction that builds on our emerging skills and strengths in digital gaming might also work."

Wet labs for pharmA and biotech FIRMS

"Ireland is a recognised global player in biotech and pharmaceuticals, but there is a shortage of wet-lab facilities -- testing and analysis laboratories that require water, ventilation and specialised piped utilities," says Donal Ryan, managing director of cutting-edge equine genetics firm Equinome.

Some Irish firms have had to go abroad to find these, so building or retro-fitting these facilities here would help to retain high-skilled jobs and to attract new ones, he adds.

Low-cost incubation space and accommodation

Startups or multinationals that promise to create jobs should be offered free or very low-cost business incubation space for their first few years, using Nama offices, and this would lower the cost of doing business, said all of our respondents.

"The cost of living is a huge factor in encouraging skilled workers and researchers to locate here. Thanks to Nama we can offer them low-rent accommodation," adds digital education entrepreneur Theo Lynn.

New National Archive

"We need a proper new National Archives, because the current one is overcrowded and not fireproofed," says Superquinn founder Senator Feargal Quinn.

educational tourism facilities

"Wealthy families in the Middle East and Latin America want somewhere safe and friendly where they can learn English, mix with their peers from around the world and gain international experience.

"Traditionally they might've gone to London or Miami, but those places are no longer perceived to be as safe for various reasons, so Ireland has an opportunity," says Horgan.

All of our respondents added that our own schools and universities should be encouraged to move out of prefabs and into Nama offices where possible.

Regional conference and event centres

Smaller regional versions of the National Convention Centre or the O2, seating 4,000 people and built on cheap Nama land would generate income in the regions and create business for any Nama hotels in those locations, suggests Aer Arann founder Padraig O Ceidigh.

Health facilities, low security prisons

British experts are now calling for doctors to prescribe exercise for things like depression, rather than prescribing expensive medications.

Nama hotels could function as alternative health facilities, providing massages, walking, swimming, quality food, sports and social activities, the Superquinn founder says.

Hotels or apartment blocks could even perhaps be adapted as low-security prisons based on the Scandinavian rehabilitation model, he adds.

Using Nama buildings for outpatient facilities or storage could free up overcrowded hospitals, O'Ceidigh adds.

Sunday Independent

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