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Future may be crystal clear for retail hub struggling to survive in recession

IT cost €50m to convert and beautifully restore the historic old warehouse in the IFSC into the swanky CHQ shopping centre.

But the project to create an upmarket shopping emporium feeding off well-heeled financial services professionals ran into turbulence when the recession hit.

Now the future of the building will be one of the crucial decisions of the new board of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA).

In its current guise, the CHQ isn't working. The building which once hosted the largest dinner ever held in Ireland -- for 4,000 veterans of the Crimean War -- is now, for the most part, eerily empty.

A number of ventures have started and failed. Meadows and Byrne closed after a complex dispute with the landlords. Upmarket tailor Louis Copeland told the Sunday Independent that his outlet in the CHQ is just about "washing its face", and though food and beverage outlets including Starbucks and Insomnia are trading well, many of the units lie empty.

What the DDDA will have to decide now is whether to sell the building outright at what is sure to be a massive loss, or to examine the possibility of leasing the landmark building to a commercial enterprise.

While property investors are thin on the ground in Dublin, Tipperary Crystal managing director Declan Fearon wants to create Dublin's biggest cultural centre at the building, which would retain the retail element of the centre while attracting national and international tourists.

He's already spent two years doing the groundwork, but is anxious not to appear unseemly in advance of a competitive tender process.

He says his project would combine the "live" manufacture and cutting of crystal glass with a hi-tech historical exhibit, using state-of-the-art interactive technology and permanent cultural displays.

He said that two years ago he decided that Tipperary Crystal needed to look for a suitable site for a crystal-manufacturing facility.

"We have decided that the best way for crystal manufacturing to thrive in Europe is if there is some kind of link-in with tourism, where we could sell crystal retail rather than wholesale. We began looking at CHQ because we felt Dublin was the best fit in terms of location and numbers of tourists, and the building is so well situated beside the Convention Centre."

"We have done a lot of research and thought about what else could fit into the building and work with our project from a tourism perspective."

"We have a few ideas -- a museum in the basement called 'A Walk in the Dark', which would be fully interactive and feature the most up-to-date laser technology. It could be a journey through Ireland through the ages. We have been talking with Martello Media, who are a fantastic world-beating Irish company who are doing pioneering work in this area," says Fearon.

He also believes that a genealogy centre would be a good fit, while it is known that the Riverdance conglomerate have expressed interest in some type of permanent interactive exhibition.

"So far all of this is 'what if, what if' but we have done the groundwork and certainly believe there is a vibrant future for the CHQ as a cultural hub. I would stress that we would see no change in the arrangements for existing retail tenants. They would be an important part of the mix," he said.

Two years ago, an internal report for the DDDA, prepared by the authority's own property advisers and seen by the Sunday Independent, suggested that the value of the CHQ building had fallen from a high of €50m to some €17m at that time.

The failure of the CHQ as a standalone retail venture mirrors the flat trading conditions endured by retailers across the country.

Sunday Independent