Need to know: Athlone Euro-Chinese ‘trading hub’

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Chinese flag

What is it?

Nearly 300 acres of farmland, where a 1.1m sq ft exhibition centre is proposed by developer Athlone Business Park in Co Westmeath.

Who wants an exhibition centre in the middle of Ireland?

The Chinese do. They argue that the wholesale buyers of Chinese goods in Europe and the US can fly by budget airlines to Ireland’s airports, such as Shannon, Cork and Galway, and drive to the hub.

Chinese manufacturers will exhibit their wares in the display space, rather than saddling customers with the expense of visiting factories in China.

Would An Bord Pleanála, the planning board, allow such incursion into the countryside of Co Westmeath?

Yes, earlier this month, the board announced that the area was considered a gateway within the national spatial strategy.

The board said the development would have a profound and permanent impact on the area without dwarfing it. However, it did not allow wind turbines for fear that they would mince up birds.

Who is behind Athlone Business Park?

Athlone Business Park chief executive John Tiernan, in partnership with local developers Aidan Kelly and Michael O’Sullivan.

They will not name the Chinese financial backers who have to raise €1.4bn to develop the hub, but say that approval from the board means that they can market the exhibition space to manufacturers.

Why did they choose Athlone?

It was between Birkenhead in Cheshire and Athlone. The Irish town won with the promise of government grants and also because there are 150 Chinese students studying at Athlone Institute of Technology — more than any other foreign nationality.

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