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Weather puts Titanic project on course for 2012 opening

Construction of the Titanic Signature project is a month ahead of schedule, with the landmark building on course to open in the first quarter of 2012.

Mike Smith, chief executive of Titanic Quarter Ltd, said that recent good weather had allowed contractor Harcourt Construction to make significant progress on the £97m project, which is expected to attract 400,000 visitors to Belfast.

“We’re three to four weeks ahead of schedule on the Signature Project. It is a complicated construction but we are ahead of schedule and we expect to have that building up and operational by the end of the first quarter 2012,” said Mr Smith.

“We want to get the building waterproofed as quickly as possible because it is two years construction and one year fitout. We started last May so by the end of next May we’ll be on to the work inside. The basic shape of the building will take place quickly.”

Mr Smith said he is not concerned Titanic Quarter — a 1,000,000 square foot development — may find it hard to attract tenants in the current depressed property market, though the company is having to work hard to secure investments on the scale of Citi Bank’s recently opened operation.

“The market is slow, I’m not denying that, and we’re working hard in the US on the opportunities for direct foreign investment. It is a harder market every year, we need to be so competitive and we have to know exactly what benefits we can offer, not just in terms of Titanic Quarter but in Northern Ireland generally,” he said.

Reports in the Republic have suggested thatPat Doherty, whose Harcourt Developments ultimately owns Titanic Quarter Ltd, may see some loans go into the Irish government’s NAMA scheme. While Mr Smith declined to comment on Harcourt he said the agency — set up to take large problem property loans off the books of five Irish banks — would have no direct effect on Titanic Quarter.

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“There is absolutely no implications whatsoever for Titanic Quarter Ltd. Our development is spread throughout a number of sectors and all our projects have funds in place,” he said.

“Because we’re not focusing in one particular sector of the market — there’s hotels, there’s shops, there’s offices, a public record office, a new college, the Signature Project — all are in different sectors, so we’re in a very good place in terms of where the market is generally. We have spread the risk.”

Mr Smith said that he had been reassured by NAMA executives’ comments during their recent visit to Belfast that they would not dump all the property they now control onto the market, but instead plan to realise land values in a phased way without distorting the market.

“I was reassured to know that they have a minimum 10 year span to deal with this,” said Mr Smith.

“As long as they take time to assess their loan book, do due diligence on it and then have a strategy in mind that they take time with it will work. What wouldn’t work is if there was a firesale. If they are clever about this I think they can secure a significant return to the Irish government by taking a phased and strategic approach to it.”

He also said Titanic Quarter Ltd has no intention of changing valuations on apartments whose price was agreed at the height of the property market and which many buyers are now struggling to get financing for because property prices have crashed.

It had 80% of the 475 apartments in phase one of its Arc development sold off the plans and the last two blocks of this will be finished in December.

“People signed a contract and we believe that those contracts are watertight,” he said.

“We are working with people to get them to complete their contracts. We haven’t sought to litigate against everyone who has delayed.

“We are working with people to give them every opportunity to pull together the funds. We appreciate that the market out there is very slow in terms of securing funds. Our aim is to get as many people who signed a contract as we can across the line,” he said