The new owners of Sprucefield Retail Park acquired the development for nearly £70m as part of a deal for bigger, more desirable assets in England, it has emerged.
FTSE 250 property company Intu bought Sprucefield Retail Park and two major UK shopping centres from former owners Westfield – but it's understood Intu had not set out to buy Sprucefield, but was instead targeting the two big centres in England.
The deal does not relate to the Sprucefield Centre where Marks and Spencer and Boots are located but instead to the retail development at the other side of the Sprucefield roundabout, which has a Sainsbury's supermarket, a B&Q, Argos, Next and Toys 'R' Us.
Eamonn Murphy of Murphy Surveyors in Belfast said Sprucefield Retail Park was likely to have been added on to Intu's target assets of Merry Hill and Derby in the north of England.
According to the announcement by Intu, which is the biggest owner of shopping centres in the UK, it will pay £69.8m for Sprucefield and nearly £408m for a 50% interest in Westfield Merry Hill near Dudley, and £390.3m for Westfield Derby.
The company states: "The acquisition of Sprucefield, at a relatively low capital cost, provides the potential for longer term development of further retail space."
However, Merry Hill is described as having "a strategic West Midlands location filling a gap in Intu's national coverage". And the Derby centre is described as providing "an attractive income return, with potential for capital growth from yield compression".
The company's chief operating officer Mike Butterworth said: "It was certainly a package of the three schemes together – Sprucefield is a retail park whereas the others are shopping centres.
"We don't have retail parks – apart from where they are closely linked to a shopping centre we own – but we hope Sprucefield could be quite a bit more than a retail park."
He said the company's plans did not include a quick sale of Sprucefield, and said it would travel over to meet politicians and planners to discuss the long-delayed plans of John Lewis to open a department store at the site.
Last year the then environment minister Alex Attwood said future development would be limited to "bulky goods," leading the consortium behind John Lewis to withdraw its planning application.
But the Department of the Environment would not comment directly on the implications a new owner could have for the long-running saga over John Lewis.
A DoE spokesman said: "There are no planning applications currently in the system for a department store at the Sprucefield retail park. Any application submitted would be considered under current planning policies by DoE Planning."
Mr Murphy said selling Sprucefield Retail Park marked Westfield's final withdrawal from Northern Ireland after the sale of its 50% stake in CastleCourt last year.
No one from John Lewis was available for comment yesterday, but it's understood the company would seek more clarification on planning.
But the company still regards Sprucefield as the only suitable site for its store.
Company controls a series of stores across the UK and operates online
INTU is listed on the London Stock Exchange and in Johannesburg and is one of the biggest owners of shopping centres in the UK.
As well as Sprucefield and the other two centres in Derby and Birmingham which it has bought as part of the latest deal, the company also owns 16 centres, including the Trafford Centre and Arndale Centre in Manchester, Lakeside in Thurrock, Eldon Square in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and Midsummer Place in Milton Keynes.
Intu also runs its own online shopping portal.
The company began life in the UK in 1980 as the fledgling international arm of Liberty Life Association of Africa Ltd, the South African financial services company founded by Donald Gordon in 1958.
Parts of its business have been inherited from its previous subsidiary company, Capital & Counties, which was incorporated in the UK in 1933.
Intu said it is now focused on the UK's best shopping centres and claims to own 10 of the Top 25 centres across the region. It has invested £7.4bn in the retail sector and says two-thirds of the UK population live within a 45-minute drive of an Intu centre.
The centres under Intu's control include:
Sprucefield Retail Park, Lisburn
Westfield Mary Hill, Dudley
Intu Trafford Centre, Manchester
Intu Bromley, Bromley
Intu Chapelfield, Norwich
Intu Midsummer Place, Milton Keynes
Intu Victoria Centre, Nottingham
Intu Lakeside, Thurrock
Intu Eldon Square, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
St David's, Cardiff
Intu Broadmarsh, Nottingham
Intu Metrocentre, Gateshead
Intu Uxbridge, Uxbridge
Intu Watford, Watford
Intu Braehead, Glasgow
Intu Potteries, Stoke-On-Trent
The Mall, Cribbs Causeway, Bristol