Sports Direct and Newcastle owner Mike Ashley's deal for Belfast retail site could be 'first of many'
Billionaire businessman Mike Ashley's deal to buy a prominent Belfast retail spot is a "strong sign" he will expand his empire here, it has been claimed.
The Newcastle United and Sports Direct owner has bought Donegall Arcade in the heart of the city, and is set to open his first city centre branch of Sports Direct.
Earlier this month, the Belfast Telegraph revealed the controversial businessman was in the process of buying the site.
It is understood rival retailer Lifestyle Sports had been due to take over the Currys store before the sale of the building.
It is Mr Ashley's first major property deal in Northern Ireland, though last month it emerged he was on course to take over Irish discount department store Heatons, which has 10 stores across the region.
Donegall Arcade had once operated under Peter Dolan's Jermon Developments, which purchased the site for £26m in early 2005 and announced plans for its redevelopment.
Many of his company's loans were absorbed into the Republic's bad bank, Nama, with the debts then transferred to US vulture fund Cerberus.
While the property agents behind the sale, Lambert Smith Hampton, would not reveal how much Donegall Arcade had gone for, one expert said it would likely "be in excess of £10m".
The acquisition of the building and the new Sports Direct store could be the first of many, according to Eamonn Murphy of Murphy Chartered Surveyors.
"Personally, for someone like him to buy an asset, it's a great vote of confidence and is a sign he will open more stores," he said. "And if an opportunity presents itself, buy more assets," he said."It's a positive thing, because he is not going to just do this.
"It's a flagship location for his business on the island of Ireland, and I'd assume he will invest in other stores."
Philip Beresford - who compiles the Sunday Times Rich List - told the Belfast Telegraph that if Mike Ashley can find an asset at the right price, "then he'll go for it".
"He knows what he's doing and can see opportunities that no one else can," he added.
A spokesman for Sports Direct said: "We believe there is a gap for our diverse product range".
Mike Ashley's fortune is spread across his retail empire, along with his stake in Newcastle United Football Club.
Sports Direct, which he formed in 1982, has around 500 stores across the world.