Belfast Telegraph

Mutual building can’t be reminder of our boom and bust

By Margaret Canning

A BUILDING can often become an important emblem of something which surpasses its original purpose.

The Scottish Mutual Building in Belfast is in danger of becoming an emblem of the impact of public sector cuts.

Schools are rightly wincing at the prospect of implementing cuts to the Department of Education budget, and all departments are bracing themselves for the inevitable, but our built environment will be no means be immune.

Scottish Mutual has been standing in Belfast for around 110 years, and has been home to commonplace businesses like a building society, a recruitment agency, a shop and a cafe in recent years.

But its great potential, from its austere turrets and dark red sandstone to its Donegall Square/Bedford Street location, did not escape the roving eye of developers during the boom.

For that reason, it can be seen as embodying our recent economic trends. It was bought by Peter Dolan from Dungannon — as one observer described it, Scottish Mutual was “his asset on the square”.

But as his sizeable property empire frayed around the edges with the economic crash, the building was swallowed up by Nama. There it could have languished were it not for the green shoots of optimism we saw last year, and the energy and vision of the Hill family in Ballymena. They are the owners of Galgorm Resort & Spa, as well as the former owners of nearby Ten Square Hotel.

Could it have been the lure of once more owning a hotel on their old stamping ground — a prime location for attracting streams of celebratory couples from City Hall — which cemented their attraction towards Scottish Mutual?

Whatever their motive, the transaction was confirmed with fanfare last year, and it seemed like their confidence could translate into a vibrant hotel.

But a grant which could have helped the project along the way is now in jeopardy, and the Hills are looking to other sources for funding their latest project. Let’s hope their drive isn’t thwarted and that the private sector can plug the gap left by the likely withdrawal of the restoration grant.

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