Sunday 27 May 2007

Town centre set to transform Athlone

The developer of the Athlone Town centre believes it will act as a catalyst for the growth of the midlands town.

John O’Sullivan of Gallico Developments believes the opening of the firm’s €500 million Athlone Towncentre in October will reinvigorate the centre of the midlands town and provide a catalyst for its future growth.

‘‘When our development is open there will be around one million square feet of retail in total in a pedestrian friendly zone in the town centre,” he said.’ ‘Within that you can get all of the offerings of Dublin or Galway without getting into your car and driving from place to place.”

He also believes the opening of the development will help Athlone to grow into a city.

‘‘The government came up with the idea and facilitated it with infrastructure, and the National Spatial Strategy will help, but it is really private enterprise that will make this town a city. Athlone Towncentre will hopefully be a catalyst towards that,” he said.

The scheme, which is now 85 per cent let, will be anchored by Marks & Spencer, while other tenants include Tommy Hilfiger and Best Menswear.

The Athlone Towncentre scheme first started becoming a reality when the Royal Hoey Hotel in the town came on the market.’ ‘We were developing Manor Mills in Maynooth at the time the hotel in Athlone came up. I had been interested in acquiring it over the years but certain problems came up and it had never been sold,” O’Sullivan recalled.

‘‘I subsequently bought the hotel on 3.5 acres. It was next to a site which had been bought by the local authority; I approached them and acquired the remaining portion of that site after they had built civic offices and a civic square on part of it. We then acquired other properties around the site, so there were about 20 properties bought in total. Everything was acquired within three years and we then went for planning.”

According to O’Sullivan, the planners did not think that the original proposals for the site had enough mixed uses, and even though planning was approved at local level it was refused permission by An Bord Pleanala.

‘‘We went away to lick our wounds, then chartered a small plane and went to shopping centres around England to see what was happening there,” he said.

‘‘One of the trends we saw was a multi-anchored approach, with a number of department stores and very little food offering.

‘‘We decided to go for a Grafton Street-type environment as a result and that’s been the key to our success. We got more fashion retail in and there’s no major anchor. T hat is key to the whole project, because if you have that situation, their success or failure impacts on everything else.”

The new scheme comprises 27,870 square metres of retail space over two levels, a four-star 160-bedroom hotel, a 1,300 space car park and a spa and leisure centre.

Designed by Murray O’Laoire, it will be laid out in a mix of single and double height units with a fully glazed roof structure.

‘‘It’s a very clever scheme that takes advantage of the typography,” said O’Sullivan.

‘‘The architect created an east-west street at lower level and a north-south street facing onto Mardyke Street, which intersect at a large square. In general the retailers are very happy with the scheme.”

O’Sullivan hired Demographics Ireland to research the catchment area for the centre, and it estimated the disposable spend of the target population was €800 million.

‘‘We started to do marketing on that basis, but Marks & Spencer decided to get a company in Britain to check the figures. T hey found there was a catchment population of 680,000 and a comparison spend of €1.3 billion. Marks & Spencer then wanted to be there. In Maynooth we maybe needed to drag retailers in, but in Athlone we haven’t had to do that,” he said.

‘‘Although it’s in the centre of Athlone, the centre is only 800metres from the motorway intersection, meaning people in places like Kilbeggan who might have gone to Liffey Valley or Galway will come to us. Our offering is equal to any of the big regional centres.”

O’Sullivan also owns the Hodson Bay and Galway Bay hotels. He said that the new hotel in Athlone will be run by that hotel group but will be branded under an international hotel chain’s name. He added they are looking for other opportunities as he believes many hotels will be coming on the market in the coming years as capital allowances expire.

‘‘People built them to get the capital allowances and only then went looking for an operator,” he said.

‘‘That was alright when things were good, but I think there will be acquisition opportunities in the next while. We’re certainly on the acquisition trail but we’re going to take them one at a time, because hotels take a lot of management.”

O’Sullivan is originally from south Kerry and graduated from Bolton Street before teaching engineering and technical drawing in Tallaght Community College.’ ‘In Dublin I had been doing some small scale development - buying a site, building a house and living there before selling it on,” he said.

He eventually moved to Athlone with his wife, who is from the town.

‘‘I bought a couple of buildings in the town when we moved here and knocked them together and made a pub. I also went back to teaching for a while,” he said.

H e eventually developed the Hodson Bay and Galway Bay hotels and is now looking for other retailled opportunities with his partners.

‘‘We’re looking at a number of opportunities,” he said.

‘‘We’re looking at three different locations that might be suitable for another development like Athlone Towncentre.”

Sunday Business Post

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