Backers of Midlands Great Mall of China project need €200m to start up
THOUSANDS of jobs at a planned hub for showcasing Chinese goods to the world hang in the balance, as the backers need more than €200m to build the first phase of the ambitious project.
No companies have yet signed up to base themselves at the Athlone facility and it faces competition from similar sites being developed across Europe, it emerged yesterday.
The admission came just hours after An Bord Pleanala granted planning permission for the first phase of the massive "Europe China Trading Hub" on a 127-hectare site at Creggan, 2km outside Athlone in Co Westmeath.
But project frontman, and former Roscommon county manager, John Tiernan, yesterday admitted that the project was not guaranteed to go ahead.
"We would assume we would get the project for Athlone, but it's not a certainty," he told the Irish Independent.
"We have done quite a bit of market research and built up a number of contacts and from all of that we're quite happy there is tremendous appetite for this project. Now we have the planning, we can begin signing people up. We see ourselves moving forward.
"We can't even assume at this stage that phase one will be undertaken. We have a lot of work to do before we get to the point of pouring concrete in the ground," he added.
Mr Tiernan, who said he was employed because of his planning expertise and strategic advice, also refused to reveal who the Chinese investors behind the development were.
"The original idea for this project came from China, not Athlone," he said.
"Basically, the people from China have not given licence to say who they are. As soon as they do, we will make it public, but they are investors."
The developers plan to build a total of 12 exhibition halls totalling more than 100,000 square metres.
This would be used by Chinese companies hoping to sell electronics, machinery, medical devices and other products to markets in the EU, US, North Africa and the Middle East.
The centre will promote trade and business between China, Europe and the US. Exports from China to the EU are worth almost €250bn a year.
The plans include two 'mega' exhibition halls of more than 30,000 square metres each -- about the same size as the country's largest store, IKEA in Dublin -- and a 'China' hall, which would be 1,300 square metres.
The hub promises to employ 1,500 people after an initial boost of 1,200 construction jobs. Some 70pc of the full-time jobs will be for local people or EU nationals.
The development will be built over five phases, promising up to 9,000 jobs, and will eventually include two five-star hotels, 445,000 square metres of exhibition halls, a cinema, golf course, primary school, apartments and a 'China Tower' 90 metres taller than the Dublin Spire.
The first phase will cost €220m to construct. It is hoped that work will begin in a year, and it will open in 2015. The project would cost €1.4bn to complete.
The Athlone Chamber of Commerce said its impact and job creation would be "absolutely massive" for the Co Westmeath town.
"There's a great presence of retailers here, so they would benefit greatly, as well as the rates and taxes that will be generated," said its president, John McGrath.
Heritage group An Taisce, which opposed the project, said the decision to grant permission was a "serious concern".
The 37 planning conditions attached to the project were "vague", and it was concerned that the board had not taken into account the "speculative" nature of the scheme.
Permission for the enormous project was sought by a company called Athlone Business Park Ltd, headed by local solicitor Michael O'Sullivan and builder Aidan Kelly.
The project will be financed by a combination of private investment and pre-sales of concession spaces. Up to 1.5 million visitors could attend every year, say the plans.
The board's unanimous decision, subject to 37 conditions, said the project complied with national and local planning guidelines, and would not have a "significant adverse effect on the environment".
Work on nine smaller exhibition halls cannot begin until at least two of the major centres are completed. The buildings cannot be used for other purposes, such as manufacturing.