There could be no stronger endorsement of the £5bn Titanic Quarter development in Belfast than that delivered yesterday by University of Ulster chief economist Mike Smyth when he said “it is the future of Belfast”.
Yesterday banking giant Citibank unveiled its new offices at the development which has transformed the city’s waterfront area. Titanic Quarter can already claim Belfast Metropolitan College, Audi and the Northern Ireland Science Park, and many more businesses are expected to follow despite the tough economic times.
Mr Smyth said: “I think it’s Belfast’s future — I will be as radical as that. It seems natural to me in a city of the size of Belfast with a river, where you have that free land which was once the foundation of its historical capital and wealth. As it gets regenerated inevitably the centre of gravity will move away from the centre and onto Queen’s Island.
“In London, development is along the river. It becomes a matter of using whatever land is available. You see that with Greenwich, which is being reclaimed as the location of the Olympics.
“And look at the docklands area of Dublin. People laughed at Charlie Haughey when he opened the Irish Financial Services Centre, but look at it now, there’s hardly any room there.”
The Titanic Quarter covers a 185-acre site on the banks of the Lagan. When completed it will feature more 7,500 apartments, 900,000sq m of business, education, office and research and development floor space together with hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars.
Those behind the development believe it will create at least 25,000 new jobs over the next 15 years.
But will having such a large and attractive business location suck business away from other parts of Belfast?
Mr Smyth said he did not fear black holes in other parts of the city.
“That will only happen if Belfast fails to reach its potential. We have to be optimistic. We are in a very gloomy situation but we will have to come out of it,” he said.
“The future of Belfast is smart people doing smart things in a smart way.
“It’s not about smoke-stacked factories now. It’s about knowledge-based activity, innovation-led research and development, bio-science or financial services. We have the potential for all of those.
“I long for the day when big pharmaceutical companies are in Belfast. That’s why I’m involved in a campaign for lowering the rate of corporation tax. And, if those companies have any wit, they’ll locate in Queen’s Island.”
Lettings at the Titanic Quarter have been negotiated by commercial property agents CBRE. Associate director Gareth McGimpsey said the attractiveness of the development lay in the new broadband ‘fast link’ to North America through Project Kelvin, its closeness to the city centre and the availability of car parking.
“The presence of the Odyssey, the Premier Inn hotel, Public Records Office and other tenants all add up to creating a critical mass which will attract other tenants,” he added.
Ulster Bank economist Richard Ramsey also predicted new companies would drift towards Titanic Quarter, with a similar instinct which has seen the heart of Belfast’s nightlife drift from the so-called ‘Golden Mile’ of Shaftesbury Square towards the Cathedral Quarter.
“Companies like Citi will act as a magnet. The fact that Citi is there will be seen as a ringing endorsement,” he said.
“Audi recently moved there, showing that it’s the new industrial space for up-and-coming high-value-added companies.”
He also predicted that other public sector organisations could follow the example of the Public Records Office and set up there.
“If the public sector looks at selling off some of its estate, it may consider moving to the Titanic Quarter,” he said.