independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

337-acre Chinatown hub comes to Athlone

THE team behind an ambitious plan to create an international China trade hub the size of a town is aiming to have phase one up and running in three years.

Athlone Business Park Ltd wants to get a jump on rival bidders in England for the lucrative one-stop trade and exhibition centre which will initially create 1,530 jobs.



The €175m first phase of the Europe China Trading Hub at Creggan, near Athlone, will provide a base for Chinese companies to promote business in Europe and across the western world.



John Tiernan, chief executive of Athlone Business Park Ltd, said it is aiming for construction to begin by the end of next year.



"It's big, yes. Some people have been gobsmacked by the overall scale of the masterplan but that is only if everything comes to pass," he said.



"I'm confident. But until the point when I'm told 'start pouring the concrete', there's always some doubt. And it's worth noting it's a project that does not produce waste water pipes with gunge coming out - it's a project that produces jobs."



The focus of the hub is to give executives and buyers on the US east coast easy access to the Chinese market without costly and time-consuming visa applications and travel.



The aim is to open phase one by mid-2015. If plans come to fruition and another five phases can be filled - an estimated €1.4bn development - the full site would be operational by 2022, employing about 9,000 workers, two-thirds of whom must be Irish or European.



It is understood Chinese money will finance the project and Irish banks will have no role in the lending.



The development - which will also have a special Irish section to promote domestic business - will house massive exhibition centres for buyers to assess products before placing bulk orders.



While discussions have taken place with some Chinese manufacturers, no firms have signed up to base themselves at the Midlands facility.



Mr Tiernan said Athlone Business Park Ltd, whose directors include Aidan Kelly and Michael O'Sullivan, have been speaking to a number of Chinese investors over the last three years. They envisage that it will attract 1,750 visitors a day.



Charles Stanley-Smith, chairman of heritage body An Taisce, warned that if the units are not filled the development would be Ireland's largest ghost estate.



The plan is reckoned to be the largest development ever proposed in Ireland - although a rival development has been given the all-clear by authorities in Wirral, Merseyside.



An Taisce also warned about the similar development, and smaller-scale trade hubs already established across Europe.



"Europe will probably be able to accommodate a number of these hubs but we want to be first - first up, best dressed," Mr Tiernan said.



Phase one focuses mainly on showcasing and is a fraction of the overall 140-hectare plan which also includes two five-star hotels, a Chinese palace and serviced apartments.



If all five phases are complete it would house a youth hostel, cinema, arts centre, recreation and massage centres, golf course, multi-purpose entertainment hall, conference facility, medical centre, fire station, primary school, kindergarten, railway station, two bus stations, an underground car park for 1,370 vehicles and basement transport hub, and and a "China Tower" 90m (295ft) taller than the Dublin Spire.



In total its footprint will be near a million square metres.



Phase one, which will create 1,200 construction jobs, is made up of an oval-shaped four-storey reception building 20m (66ft) high, housing customer service facilities, meeting rooms and administrative offices, and the near 13,000 square metre China Hall for themed temporary exhibitions.



It is envisaged China Hall would be transformed every few months to showcase a different sector of Chinese manufacturing and promote associated businesses.



There will also two 30,000 square metre curved roof showcase spaces known as Mega Exhibition Halls offering companies flexible layout trading space for multiple showrooms - about 270 smaller units at a time.



The roofs will be fitted with special grass or sedum with solar panels. The hub is also designed to house nine smaller exhibition halls some of which can be sub-divided.



An Bord Pleanala attached 37 conditions, mostly technical, to the planning decision.



Concerts have been banned at the exhibition centres and the hub will only be allowed to operate 10am to 7pm Monday to Friday and there must be a bus service to and from Dublin Airport for visitors and another in and out of Athlone town, as well as cycle ways, for employees.



Barry Kehoe, director of services in Westmeath County Council's planning division, said the authority welcomed the green light.



"We welcome the positive decision and we hope that it proceeds as soon as possible because of the economic impact in the region," he said.



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