Welcome to lovely Athlone, the bustling new Beijing-on-Shannon
IT IS one of the most tantalising announcements in recent months -- promising to cut an entire region's dole queue.
During an eyecatching PR exercise yesterday, Taoiseach Brian Cowen gave his blessing to a project designed to create 10,000 jobs on a 600-acre rural landbank.
The plan is to build a hub dedicated to Chinese factories and other industries which would form a unique European HQ -- just outside Athlone, Co Westmeath. The so-called 'Chinese hub' would give Chinese industry doorstep-access to Europe for their products.
Two thousand Chinese workers would also relocate here in the first phase, the backers claimed yesterday.
Local developers paid €50m for the land at Creggan during the Celtic Tiger peak and, given the property crash, are keen to see the ambitious plan take off.
But last night there were few specific details about the project.
If successful, the hub would be one of the biggest single private-sector employers in the country, even bigger than Intel or Hewlett Packard.
However, similar ambitious projects that promised huge jobs dividends ended up being mothballed because they ran into planning, legal and financial difficulties.
The Taoiseach confirmed he had met Chinese promoters and businessmen in a bid to hammer out a deal. "It's about exploring the potential of this idea and I have met with some of the promoters to see if we can proceed with it," Mr Cowen said. But he refused to speculate further on the creation of the proposed centre, claiming it is best to take a "step-by-step" approach. "The local authorities are making their constructive response to the ideas that are being put forward and what we have to do now is work with them and show that we are prepared to work with prospective investors to see what emerges," he said.
Creation of the hub would require the rezoning of hundreds of acres of lands in the area of Creggan, on the Dublin side of Athlone.
That process got under way yesterday at Westmeath County Council. Rezoning these lands would also provide for construction of a new school, railway station and hundreds of factory units and apartments.
Junior Minister for local services Michael Finneran last night confirmed he had also met the project's promoters on a number of occasions. One such meeting took place in their Beijing office during his St Patrick's Day trip to China.
Local Fianna Fail TD Mary O'Rourke also met with promoters from the UK, acting on behalf of the Chinese, as far back as 18 months ago.
She said the "dramatic plans" were then shown to the local Chamber of Commerce and to Junior Minister Conor Lenihan. But the whole process went cold until recently, Ms O'Rourke said.
It is understood project managers are keen to set up a trade base where clients can test and buy their products -- rather than having to take the long trip to China. However, one government source said things were still at a "very, very early preliminary stage of even talking" and that the Chinese investors were in talks with a number of other European cities. Mr Finneran last night stressed the project had yet to go through the formal planning processes and there were still a range of issues to be finalised.
Efforts to contact the IDA and establish its level of involvement, if any, proved unsuccessful last night.