Last weekend, the potential for the Michael Street development hit me right between the eyes in the guise of a superbly appointed retail centre which, on first viewing, is clearly getting quite the polish to look this good a dozen years after its opening. The 176,000 square foot, €500 million Athlone Town Centre, with over 600 staff across 60 different outlets, was abuzz with shoppers at lunchtime on Sunday last.
Outside of Dublin’s many outlets, along with Mahon Point in Cork, I’d suspect that no regional town had similarly fulsome footfall levels last weekend. And I’d certainly never seen Waterford city centre as busy as this on any given Sunday afternoon, even in the best of economic times. Bright, airy and pristinely maintained, the Athlone centre struck me as a template for the “If you build it, they will come” mode of thought which long-term supporters of a new city centre retail offering have espoused in relation to Waterford. And while the proposed Michael Street development at just under 108,000 square feet will be slightly smaller than the Athlone Centre, what I saw on Sunday last, as I stood outside Marks & Spencer and Zara, had me thinking: “This could be Waterford a few years from now.”
Like any other regional town in the country, there are certain streets in Athlone which are not nearly as busy as once they were. A restaurant just a short walk from the town’s stunning Shannonside castle opened for the last time on Saturday last, with a notice in its window thanking customers for their support. There were other closed shopfronts nearby, but little in the way of dereliction to note in the town centre, while a strong and vibrant orange-coded branding of the town evident throughout its more visited areas, so too the promotion of the town’s Institute of Technology.
But the all too typical sight of closed/closing shops was, to this visiting set of eyes, more than compensated for when crossing the Shannon, driving into the Athlone Centre’s 1200-space underground car park and emerging into a retail space where every single unit was occupied. That’s right: every unit. All the brand names that have been so lengthily associated with a new development in Waterford are already in Athlone: Marks & Spencer, Zara, H&M, Topshop, Vila, Selected Homme to name but a few. That the centre has clearly become a go to place since opening in 2007 (it was home to Ireland’s largest operating crane during construction) was immediately visible to this first-time visitor. And as a regular commuter to Tullamore, I felt a tad embarrassed that I’d not previously made the spin along the M6 to take in what’s been achieved in Athlone.
That this centre opened less than a year before the country was plunged into the recession, to see it thriving in 2019 is a credit to those who took on a punt on it, built the place and subsequently kept the show on the road.
But given the timing of its opening, it was no surprise to subsequently learn that the centre’s original developers, Gallico Developments Ltd, agreed to what was described as the “consensual appointment” of Stephen Tennant and Paul McCann of Grant Thornton as Joint Receivers in December 2013. In addition to the centre and car park, this receivership also accounted for 150 apartments and 35,000 square feet of office space.
According to a Westmeath Examiner report, the receiver was appointed “following a funding arrangement with banking partners after the expected sale of the centre fell through, due to the worsening economic climate in 2007. This deal with banking partners allowed the developers, Gallico Developments Ltd, to complete the construction of the centre, discharge their liabilities and ensure the centre was allowed to grow and develop over its initial years.” According to a Gallico spokesperson: “The owners have taken the centre through the most difficult period ever in the history of retailing in Ireland. It is home to many of the top Irish, UK and European brands and has established itself as the regional shopping destination for the greater Midlands region. There are over 600 people employed in over 60 shops and this move will have no impact whatsoever on employment,” they stressed. So while there’s clearly been some corporate pain, the footfall I saw in Athlone would certainly appear to suggest there’s been long term gain for both customer and region alike.
As for Waterford, Falcon Real Estate Development Ltd, the company overseeing the North Quays and Michael Street developments, recently approved design team contracts and is now engaging partners for “funding, leading and legals” on both of its city centre projects. Tendering appointments for the latter are due within the next few weeks and one suspects we’ll be hearing a good deal more about Falcon’s plans beyond those approvals. Despite the lack of economic buoyancy in Waterford city centre, albeit home to a thriving Penneys outlet, Falcon is, Brexit or no Brexit, unlikely to commence construction and push ahead with delivering their twin projects in as testing an environment as Gallico did in Athlone. “Delivering a retail experience in a bigger space where you can show the range of goods you have on offer is certainly a pressing factor at present,” said general election candidate Eddie Mulligan (FF).
“The bigger brand names are looking for a minimum of 5,000 square feet, and we don’t have too many of those units inside in the city.” Michael Street on its own will not tick that particular box, but as my trip to Athlone suggested, its development could well propel the city centre in the right direction. Better times, surely, lie ahead.