Posted on Wednesday 17 October 2012 by Ulster Business

David

From the roof of David Gavaghan's office you get a perfect visual demonstration of how far Titanic Quarter has come, and how far it still has to go.

Immediately to one side is the shimmering façade of the landmark Titanic Beflast visitor attraction, a bustling hub of tourist activity.

To the north are Titanic Studios, the hugely successful Hollywood-ready sound stages in the former Harland & Wolff Paint Hall which have invigorated the local film and television industry and attracted HBO's Game of Thrones series.

To the south is the brand new Belfast Met building, awaiting the imminent start of a new term that will bring thousands of students to the area.

It is only the east that lets the view down. As well as the T13 Urban Sports centre, the view in that direction also takes in a substantial section of wasteland that stretches as far as the famous shipyard cranes Samson and Goliath.

Gavaghan, who joined Titanic Quarter Ltd as CEO earlier this year, acknowledges there is a long way to go, but is brimming with confidence that Titanic Quarter will be able to become one of the most vibrant areas of Belfast.

"Over the next few years the aim is to continue creating a thriving space which will help Belfast to reposition itself globally," he told Ulster Business.

"Today, there are probably about 4,000-5,000 people working in Titanic Quarter and about 1,000 living here. Our long term ambition is to have 25,000 people working here and 10,000 living here."

A former head of the Strategic Investment Board, Gavaghan's background in property, infrastructure investment and project finance make him the perfect man for a project on the scale of Titanic Quarter. He knows all the stakeholders involved in Titanic Quarter and understand the dynamics of Belfast as a city, as well as how the Government machine works.

Covering 185-acres of former shipbuilding land in Belfast, Titanic Quarter is one of Europe's largest waterfront developments. The mixed use site is home to some 100 indigenous and overseas firms and has been buoyed by the success of the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, which has already welcomed 200,000 visitors, well ahead of target.

But the property market crash and recession has also meant that other developments have not progressed as quickly as TQL would have liked.
"This has been a long recession, but I think corporates are thinking again about the future," said Gavaghan. "Just as you think things won't get any better, they always do."

INSPIRATION

The day before I speak with him the CEO was in Manchester touring the BBC's new Salford MediaCity site and the council-backed Sharp Project, a former factory that has been transformed into a home for creative industries.

Manchester has put a huge amount of work and investment into positioning itself as a digital hub, believing that in 10 years time cities across the globe will be defined by their digital capabilities. It is a strategy which Gavaghan believes Belfast should emulate.

Titanic Quarter already has the Northern Ireland Science Park, home to many of the province's most promising knowledge-based businesses, as well as a thriving film production scene at Titanic Studios. While no decisions have yet been made the BBC is also considering the relocation of its Northern Ireland operations to the Quarter.

But the establishment of a Data Centre with strong digital infrastructure will be crucial to creating a truly successful creative campus he said.

"Getting the data centre here is a big thing which we're working hard on. That would allow us to build up the whole creative media campus beyond the BBC if it does relocate – and we don't know the timing on that. We'd like to do another two film studios if we could and get that whole creative campus going," he said.

"Sinclair Stockman from Digital 2020 believes that there will be more people employed here in digital than there were in the shipyards in its heyday. That's a really interesting statement of intent. Maybe there's a bit of fancifulness in that, but so what? Even if it is half of that it will be incredible," Gavaghan added.

"One of the lessons for us here from Manchester is that you've got to think big. The bigger you think the more likely you'll get there."

The CEO's wish-list for coming years is, as you might expect, a long one.

An application has been lodged for Heritage Lottery funding to turn the old Harland & Wolff drawing offices into a boutique hotel in the style of the Merchant.

Another immediate priority is to let the remaining 30,000 sq ft block of the Gateway Building which houses CITI, so attention can turn to new development.

"The funding environment is challenging but we'd very much like to start a new building. There is a lack of first class office accommodation in Belfast and we'd like to start the next financial services type building," he explained.

Gavaghan sees scope for more recreational activities along the lines of T13 – the urban sports facility housed in an old shipyard warehouse. Increased recreational footfall would in turn help TQL get more retail units let.

There's also an opportunity to be more ambitious about the tourism offering, enhancing the Titanic Trail experience to better complement Titanic Belfast, he believes.

And Residential is still part of the plan for TQ, even though many of the apartments in the Arc development took a long time to sell because of the financial crisis.

"The population in Belfast has historically declined over the last 30 years and what we've got to do is find a way to increase it. The core centre of Belfast has a population of 270,000, which is too low," Gavaghan said.

"In the rest of the world urbanisation has gone from 50% to 60% and will go to 75% in the next 20 years. We're still around the 50%. The wealth in Belfast has moved outside Belfast but long-term has to change for Belfast to really start to hum."

While these large scale projects are in the works, Gavaghan has set about making changes to his immediate environment.

Todd Architects will soon be moving their 40 strong team in Belfast into the bright, unused office space on the top floor of Titanic House, allowing the firm to overlook Titanic Belfast, one of their most prestigious projects.

There are also plans to turn the ground floor reception area of Titanic House, which currently houses models of the proposed development, into a bustling business centre, with the long closed doors which face Titanic Belfast's main entrance opened up to the public.

In TQL's own space he intends to open partitioned cubicles into an open plan office more reminiscent of the H&W drawing rooms of old. Gavaghan is also looking at making the developer's impressive board room available for visiting companies to rent out for meetings or corporate.

And he intends to get the key stakeholders in Titanic Quarter together to craft the way forward for the area.

"I'm trying to see as many people as I can, I'm trying to get together with all the principal people in Titanic Quarter and Queen's Island for a dinner in the autumn and make that a regular thing, to create a community. That's my big challenge."

Fact File

Existing developments in Titanic Quarter include:

• Titanic Belfast
• Gateway Office
• Titanic Studios
• Northern Ireland Science Park (24 acres)
• Belfast Metropolitan College
• Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
• ARC residential development (474 units)
• T13 Urban Sports Academy
• Premier Inn

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