In 2009, Johnnie Walker announced it was closing its whisky bottling plant in Kilmarnock, ending its 192-year connection with the town. Hundreds of jobs were lost and more than 20,000 people marched in protest, including then first minister Alex Salmond.
Eight years later, regeneration company HALO hopes to transform the former factory. Its mixed-use scheme is centred around a 60,500 sq ft ‘enterprise and innovation hub’ that will house both financial and cyber-focused companies, large and small. This will be built in phase one and is scheduled to open in 2020, with later phases including more commercial and industrial space alongside 210 ‘live-work studios’.
The vision behind the scheme comes from HALO founder Marie Macklin. The project is close to Macklin’s heart as she grew up in Kilmarnock, she tells Property Week. Her aim is to improve the quality of jobs available to locals by “reskilling” existing workforces and training young people. “It sits in a challenging postcode area, and that’s where I want to work and give opportunities to young people.”
Her focus on the community, and on providing local jobs, has won widespread support. Companies that have invested in the project include Scottish Power and Canadian IT firm CGI, both of which will use the hub for staff training.
Macklin has also secured £3.5m from the Scottish government, £3.5m from the UK government and £2m from East Ayrshire Council. It will also soon announce another “UK plc” financial partner, she says.
Her proposals convinced Johnnie Walker owner Diageo to sell the site to her for just £1, and the company has put in a further £2m to kickstart the scheme. “They’ve reinvested back into the community,” she says. “They knew I was well respected locally and said if I could turn it into a community-led scheme they’d sell that site for £1.”
Occupiers are already interested: Macklin tells Property Week that she is in talks with a Chinese digital manufacturing company to take space at the scheme.
CBRE senior director Andy Cunningham – who is not involved with the development – believes it won’t have trouble attracting businesses.
“These types of small to medium-size business centres tend to work in towns in Scotland and they create a bit of scale on site,” he says. “It’s a very forward-thinking project and I think it will be a bit of a beacon for the whole area, something new and exciting.”
But the site isn’t without challenges. Macklin says Japanese knotweed and mineshafts beneath the site necessitate remedial works – but she believes Brexit could be the biggest barrier because of how much government money is tied up in the scheme.
“Time is of the essence,” she says. “We don’t need funding until the middle of next year, but a lot of officials have been pulled from various projects on to Brexit, so there are not the resources to push things through. Both [UK and Scottish governments] have a duty to the community and the people, and I will hold them to account.”
Provided that the funding stream keeps running – and the project continues to attract private sector investment – HALO Kilmarnock is set to create 1,500 jobs. Macklin hopes those jobs will, at least in part, heal the wounds of the Johnnie Walker factory closure.
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HALO seeks to breathe new life into derelict Johnnie Walker plant