Posted on Saturday 22 January 2011 byUlster Business
While the opening of the Titanic Signature Project in 2012 is the next big milestone for Titanic Quarter Ltd, there will be a lot of activity in 2011, the majority of it co-ordinated by Chief Executive Mike Smith
The last time Ulster Business ran a full interview with Mike Smith he was pictured standing on a wasteland framed by Harland & Wolff's famous Samson and Goliath cranes.
That was in early 2007 and much of that wasteland has already been redeveloped in the first phase of the Titanic Quarter masterplan – an ambitious scheme to regenerate an area that was formerly home to little more than run down old shipyard buildings.
A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin and Queen's University, Smith's 30 year career spans many of the key areas of urban regeneration. He is a chartered surveyor and chartered town planner, a past chairman of the RICS and a visiting professor at the University of Ulster, as well as a supporter of Bangor rugby team.
He believes close contacts with the likes of Belfast City Council and the Harbour Commissioners built up in his days with Laganside Corporation have been essential to his role with Titanic Quarter Ltd (TQL), which holds the development agreement for the land.
"Irrespective of who was here I think it would be very difficult unless you have that contact base and the contact with the politicians is something you have to work at. That is based on a personal relationship and trust, which you can't take for granted, you have to keep working at it," he told Ulster Business.
"We would argue that all major regeneration projects around the world are in receipt of some public money and I think going forward there is an opportunity for government to support Titanic Quarter in terms of the infrastructure that is required," he adds.
Smith, who took up his role in August 2002 after 13 years at Laganside Corporation (the last five as chief executive), freely admits that Titanic Quarter is a long term project.
"I'd like to think that in a short period of time we've been successful," he said.
"But the scale of what we are talking about is maybe a 50 year time horizon. We've got a million and a half square feet either built or under construction, but there's capacity in Titanic Quarter for maybe 11 or 12 million square feet. We're only at phase one of maybe five or six phases," he adds.
That said, 2011 will be a pivotal year for Titanic Quarter.
Last year the lead tenant of its Gateway building, US firm Citi, announced plans to increase its workforce in Belfast to 1,500 while the Quarter's first hotel, a Premier Inn, opened opposite it.
Next month will see the new Public Records Office (PRONI) open to the public, the Belfast Metropolitan College campus is due to be completed in August and planning permission has also been granted for a new 650,000 square feet Financial Services Campus. Around 60% of the apartments in its Arc development are now occupied, and while this is less than the 80% originally sold off the plan Smith says TQL is working with those who agreed to buy apartments to get more across the line.
The Titanic Signature project, now known as Titanic Belfast, will also be waterproofed by the end of February and largely fitted out this year in time for the Titanic anniversary in April 2012.
"We've always talked about Titanic Quarter being a mixed use development. We've never just been focused in one sector – we've been doing office, residential, retail, hotels, PRONI, BMC, the Signature project visitor attraction, films and media, connected health. These things work best in clusters," says Smith.
"A big success in Titanic Quarter has been film production. It is a sector we hadn't looked at beyond three years ago but it has grown and grown. We have the Paint Hall and we are talking to the film production people about building two additional film studios at the moment."
The success of Belfast as a location for movies or the HBO series Game of Thrones has shown the boost that Titanic Quarter is already providing to the local economy and will continue to provide.
As well as planning to start construction on the new studios this year, Smith says the company is well on its way to securing tenants for the retail space underneath its Arc apartment complex, and has also received full planning permission for 150,000 square feet of offices which it will be looking for a suitable tenant for. It is also in talks with hotel operators about two modern hotels and a boutique hotel in the mould of the Merchant Hotel.
He is a supporter of the lobby to lower NI's corporation tax rate, saying this would provide the step change the economy needs at the present time by convincing more companies looking to reduce costs that Northern Ireland was the location for them.
"We've spoken to a lot of investors that are still attracted to the South because of the low corporation tax. It was good for us to attract Citi, who said they came here for talent and also low occupation costs. In London, Manchester or Dublin you would pay more per square foot. We have the talent and the low occupation costs, what we need is lower corporation tax," he said.
Smith admits it would also help developers like TQL to attract high profile tenants at a time when bank lending is more difficult to come by.
"We can't build too far ahead of demand or we go out of business. There's no doubt there has been a real slowdown in demand for space over the last two years and that's why it is important for us to look at what the growth sectors are. The pace at which we can develop depends on market demand and finance," he explains.
"The banks are busy recapitalising. They set terms for lending that are more aggressive than they were before. It has changed for everybody."