Owners' vision revives Marine Hotel on Antrim coast
A landmark hotel on Northern Ireland's north coast is hosting Christmas parties while readying itself for the opportunities which 2014 may bring.
The packed agenda facing the new owners of the Marine Hotel in Ballycastle is all the more remarkable because just three years ago, the hotel had closed for business.
After then-owner Mervyn McAlister abruptly shut up shop in December 2010, residents were left without a crucial meeting place – and the area without a major economic driver.
But new owners Colum McLornan and Claire Hunter, who joined forces to buy the 31-bedroomed Marine in March this year, have brought new life to the venue.
Both have experience in catering and hospitality – Mr McLornan as the owner of travel agency Friendship Travel, and Mrs Hunter as the owner of the Irish franchise for Toastabags
Mr McLornan said the hotel was an attractive prospect for many reasons. "The location, obviously, is important. It overlooks Rathlin Island and the sea front, and there's no other hotel in the town.
"It was valued at £1.3m around 2008/9 at the peak of the boom. We paid just over £400,000 so obviously at over £1m, we wouldn't have been able to raise that money, so it was a good price and good value."
The pair, who have known each other since they were students on a hospitality course in Portrush, put some of their own money towards the project.
"We also had a loan from Tennent's NI and money from Invest NI, which meant we could refurbish it and get the doors open.
"But the banks weren't interested – obviously with it being on the north coast, and a seasonal business, it didn't tick enough boxes to warrant lending."
The venue reopened in June. Mr McLornan said business was good through the summer, but with a lull after September.
He said the main issue they have had to tackle as new owners has been re-establishing the hotel's reputation.
Hosting a charity ball for Marie Curie for 380 people at the end of October has helped improve the perception of the hotel, and that it can cope with major events.
"Because it had been closed, the reputation wasn't very good, so people were a bit nervous about weddings and functions. But after the Marie Curie event, people could then see that we knew what we were doing."
The business is now looking forward to 2014, and has almost sold out all its bedrooms for the much-awaited visit of the Giro D'Italia, the cycle race which will visit Northern Ireland in May.
They also plan to reopen the pool and leisure facilities, which will take an investment of around £250,000. "We will go to banks or investors, or into some kind of public private partnership with Moyle District Council, as it's the only council area in the UK without a municipal swimming pool." More bedroom refurbishments will also be carried out.
"We're really happy to be in business and to be one of the biggest employers in the area, with up to 70 people in peak-season," Mr McLornan said.
"We have put £350,000 in wages into the economy, and us being open has helped other businesses in the area."
Tycoon fell victim to the property crash
HE was once the man behind ambitious plans to build Northern Ireland's tallest building.
However, property tycoon Mervyn McAlister ended up becoming one of the most notorious victims of the property crash.
He had built an impressive property empire in his home town of Ballycastle, the north coast and Co Down throughout the 2000s, including apartments, houses, and The Marine Hotel.
In 2007 he announced plans for the 37-storey Aurora skyscraper in Great Victoria Street in Belfast, a project which was to eventually become bogged down in planning problems.
But by December 2010, the economy had changed dramatically. The first cracks began to show when the Marine Hotel suddenly shut its doors, leaving its 25 staff bemused and customers angry.
The now defunct Anglo Irish Bank appointed a receiver to the Aurora site in January 2011 on the same day it placed two other McAlister housing developments into receivership – Greenhall Highway in Coleraine and Dunlady Road in Dundonald.
Several of his developments were eventually absorbed into the Republic's 'bad bank' Nama.
The Ballycastle builder was declared bankrupt in the High Court in early 2011 – though it's understood he has since resumed building houses.
The closure of the Marine Hotel was much lamented, as its swimming pool had been widely used by the community, and the hotel was a focal point for many groups in the otherwise isolated coastal town.
But unlike many other properties and businesses which have gone to the wall in the last couple of years, there was light at the end of the tunnel for the Marine Hotel.