Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said today it was now a “race against time” whether the Sprucefield site or Dublin secures the first John Lewis store in Ireland.
But the DUP Junior Minister admitted he feared the planning system in the Republic might be able to process the Lewis application for a Dublin store more quickly, even though the intended opening date is not until 2013.
“The danger is that it appears the first store which opens will have an all-Ireland warehouse distribution centre attached and that could mean up to 200 jobs. It was to be an integral part of the Sprucefield store,” Mr Donaldson added.
He said he had seen the “very impressive” plans for John Lewis’ O'Connell Street store and said the firm planned to have three outlets on the island of Ireland.
As the Belfast Telegraph revealed earlier this week, Environment Minister Sammy Wilson is poised to announce a public inquiry into the Sprucefield project which is likely to lure other retailers from Lisburn city centre.
If it is given priority the verdict could be given by next summer, potentially allowing the store to open — if all goes well — during 2011.
A spokeswoman for John Lewis Partnership said the company remained committed to the Sprucefield scheme.
But she said that no decision had so far been taken as to where the distribution centre would be located.
The company said that “anticipated timescales” would be factored into any decision.
There has been speculation that John Lewis might opt for a store in Co Louth if it is thwarted in its aim of opening at Sprucefield. The five floor, 250,000 square foot Dublin store, which will create 800 jobs, will be John Lewis’ first expansion outside the UK.
The group said it had reached heads of agreement with developer Chartered Land for the €50m investment.
Gareth Thomas, John Lewis’ director of retail design and development, said the news of the Dublin store was significant as it represented its first move to a location outside the UK.
He added: “We are delighted to have the opportunity to open John Lewis in Dublin, a city full of vitality and vibrancy. We believe that we will add a fresh and new dimension to the Irish retail market.
“We have a strong track record of commitment to sympathetic city centre regeneration and are very excited about trading on Dublin’s O’Connell Street.
Revised plans for the Sprucefield store and 19 additional retail units were unveiled in August.