Posted on Friday 31 January 2020 by Ulster Business

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Joe O'Neill and Suzanne Wylie

Belfast Harbour boss Joe O’Neill will help lead a private and public sector delegation to MIPIM – the world’s biggest commercial property event – as chairman of the taskforce. He chats to John Mulgrew about the big announcements, fighting off the competition and attracting a global giant to Northern Ireland

For Joe O’Neill and the wider delegation heading to potentially warmer climates, the proposition of selling the city and wider region to major investors has gotten easier.

In the five years since Belfast returned to MIPIM – an event which sees tens of thousands descend on Cannes in France for four days of real estate and development – the private and public team, and taskforce, have developed a “strong platform” in which to sell the city and Northern Ireland, with hopes of attracting a big name insurance or tech firm on the list.

“MIPIM is a great platform for the promotion of city-wide initiatives, and demonstrating to investors and to occupiers the growth potential in the city, and the opportunities for them and that the key stakeholders are all aligned behind an appropriate growth agenda,” Joe says.

“You see different sizes and scales of stands out there – you see some really ambitious stands and proposed developments, so Belfast has to see it’s entry point into that. Belfast first and foremost will be competing against peer group cities within the UK… but then it is a worldwide show, so you will be competing against other cities.”

Belfast is leading a major delegation this year, and will also be joined by representatives from other Northern Ireland councils, including those that are part of the Belfast Region City Deal, such as Mid & East Antrim. That deal is also going to be a focus for announcements and development, during the event.

This year’s delegation will be led by a host of top private sector developers in Northern Ireland, alongside Belfast City Council and organisations such as Belfast Harbour.

That includes Bywater, Wirefox, Titanic Quarter, Tribeca, McAleer & Rushe and Graham Group, along with the two universities and others working within related fields from law, professional services and the supply chain.

For Joe and the delegation, MIPIM represents an opportunity to announce some of Belfast and Northern Ireland’s wider major new infrastructure and commercial plans. Previous visits have included the announcement of major offices schemes, hotels and apartment developments.

“We will have a series of announcements – some of those announcements will be new, and some will be progress, and demonstrating to investors or occupiers that progress has been made if it’s a multi-year scheme, to show we are delivering.

“… we have new projects coming through the pipeline in various sectors. This year we are looking at launching schemes around digital innovation. That aligns with one of the themes in the Belfast Region City Deal, for the city and councils in the deal. We have a particular focus on cyber-security as an investment and operating location – particular those from the US.”

Joe says that would be in addition to the already well-established cyber-security development at Catalyst in the Titanic Quarter, and that new names are coming in to the marketplace creating a “cluster” around the sector, and setting up Belfast and beyond as a new global hub.

“We are looking at announcing some details around the Belfast-Dublin-London corridor,” Joe says.

“As an economic corridor, or triangle. Post-Brexit, there are clear synergies in developing a proposition where companies can avail of the three locations if they are looking at a global footprint, and see advantages to locations in three cities.”

The issue of increasing connectivity between Belfast and Dublin also remains high on the list – improving the speed and frequency, and making developers aware of the new Belfast Transport Hub, which will transform the city’s rail and bus connectivity when complete.

For Belfast Harbour, it’s also bringing the expansion of its already successful film studios to MIPIM, amid further plans to grow and develop the hub to attract big names and become the largest of its kind outside London.

“We will be revealing more of our expansion plans, which is being supported by NI Screen,” Joe said. Some of those delivering their own presentations to potential investors will include the Harbour, Belfast City Council, Catalyst and the universities. “We are out looking around, when we are there, at what different cities are doing – seeing whether something works well, and looking at our competitive advantage in that area.”

As for the strengths and attraction for potential investors, Joe says: “Skills, talent and technology are very much at the fore. Agility as a small region and to be able to respond, and seeing that team Belfast is there and that we are aligned with a particular project. It doesn’t have to be taken back home and introduced to someone else.

“There is the emergence of Belfast as an attractive city – investment opening up, and people are always looking at new markets.

“Part of the initial roll-out when I took on the chair of MIPIM, the role was to go around to ask those who were on board previously to ask about it, if it had changed. Everyone noticed and recognised considerable (positive) change over the last four years.

“We were pioneering and establishing ourselves four years ago, now they felt we were very much a concerted and effective operating team… the collective was a powerful message, and having panels or lunches involving all of the stakeholders at one time. It’s a really strong platform to take on the next chapter.”

So, for Joe and the rest of the MIPIM delegation, what would be considered a major goal or success on the back of the visit to the commercial property show in March?

“A particular focus this year is to attract key institutional investors – the big insurance companies for example. That’s a chicken and egg situation… you need to have product, to have product you have to show that you have occupiers and a steady revenue stream.

“What we have been able to say to the investment market is ‘we have product and we now have sustainable occupation coming through… now it feels like the right time for you as an investor, to come in, and to support further investment’.”

Asked whether replicating the successes of our neighbours in Dublin in attracting tech giants such as Apple, Facebook and Google is also on the cards, Joe says: “Something like that, or a major investor. For them to do that – a technology or an investment company – they need to see that the public, private and third-tier sectors are all collaborating together to make an effective market, and I think we are good at doing that now.”

And the timing couldn’t be better for the delegation – now able to go in with a clear mandate and message with the restoration of the Executive and a return to day-to-day power-sharing politics.

“The positive thing for us is with the government and secondly, some (clarity) around Brexit… it takes those two challenging issues off the table.” π

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