THEY were sceptical at first, with fears it would import Chinese workers and fail to provide significant employment for locals.
But last night residents of Athlone were broadly welcoming the progress on the proposed €1.4bn Europe China Trading Hub, after concerns about the initial plans were laid to rest.
Former government minister and Fianna Fail politician Mary O'Rourke admitted that she initially thought the plans were "fanciful".
"I met them three years ago when they first came to me with these plans. They spread all the plans out on my living room floor. At that time it seemed to me to be very fanciful.
"But it has changed completely from the original idea and there will be plenty of employment locally," she added.
Lord Mayor of Athlone Alan Shaw said that former fears about jobs were put to rest, as he backed the proposal. "The jobs issue was a concern but I understand from the promoters that two-thirds of positions will now be for Irish and English-speaking workers," he said.
He added that while he was welcoming the decision to grant planning permission, the final project remained a long way off.
Professor Ciaran O'Cathain, the president of the Athlone Institute of Technology, has travelled to China more than 15 times in recent years and has met a number of the investors interested in the Athlone hub development.
"I met a broad range of different businesses who are interested but it was all on the basis of confidentiality. But they include a lot of blue chip companies very interested in doing business in Ireland," he said.
Currently over 200 Chinese students study at AIT. The town also has a vibrant Chinese community.
Zhang Rong (23), from the Zhejiang Province in China, is finishing his honours business degree at the institute. He now hopes that the development will lead to job opportunities that allow him remain in Ireland.
"If I have a chance I will stay here. I think this is a very good place to study and work," he said.