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King of the Castle

Critics scoffed over government plans for a multi-million pound shopping centre in the heart of Belfast. But 25 years on, CastleCourt continues to go from strength to strength, as Ivan Little discovers

At the terror-filled height of the Troubles in the 1980s, naysayers - and there were hundreds of them - reckoned former government minister Richard Needham, who championed plans for what was to become the CastleCourt shopping centre in the heart of Belfast, was worthy of attention from the men in white coats.

It was bad enough, they thought, to even think of a multi-million pound development in Royal Avenue, where the bombs were still going off with appalling and devastating regularity, but when it was revealed that the shopping centre would be a mass of glass from one end to the other, one commentator wondered if CastleCourt was being sponsored by glazing firms.

And, sure enough, the Doubting Thomases chorused "We told you so" when the IRA targeted the complex even before building work had begun in earnest on the site, which was inside a ring of steel, a gated security zone where shoppers were searched on their way in.

But by far the worst of the five attacks came in February 1988, when two UDR soldiers were killed in a bomb blast. James Cummings and Fred Starrett didn't stand a chance as they locked the Royal Avenue security gates.

A 200lb bomb was triggered by remote control. It had been hidden behind hoardings on the construction site and a second device designed to kill police and soldiers arriving to investigate the blast failed to explode.

To mark the anniversary of the atrocity, Orange Order colleagues of the two UDR men walk every year along Royal Avenue past the resplendent CastleCourt, which seems a world away from the deserted, dilapidated, depressing and dangerous city centre of old.

The sprawling centre, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has become such a fixture of Belfast that it's hard to imagine Royal Avenue without it in its prime, prized position which used to be occupied by an Army barracks and before that a luxury hotel called the Grand Central, which had played host to the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Winston Churchill in its heyday.

Direct-rule minister Richard Needham was a fervent proponent of the CastleCourt idea at a time when its opponents were legion.

Needham was almost gung-ho in his loathing for the gunmen and bombers and CastleCourt became part of his crusade to put it up to the terrorists with what was, in essence, a symbol of Belfast's resilience, a declaration that the bombers had failed. One man who was close to Needham says: "Many people thought CastleCourt would never succeed. But it was the spark that lit the regeneration of Belfast.

"And, if it hadn't been for Richard Needham, it just wouldn't have happened in the way that it did."

Significantly, Needham put his Government's money where his mouth was, courting controversy over CastleCourt by pushing through a £10m urban development grant from the Department of the Environment.

Audit Office reports subsequently criticised the fact that none of the cash was clawed back when the centre was sold, but many years later Needham defended his decision to fund CastleCourt, saying it had been money well-spent to get the development built when no one else was interested.

There were more bombings after the centre opened in 1990, but a fully-occupied CastleCourt prospered against the odds and today it is still the heartbeat of a rejuvenated and peaceful Belfast.

Centre director Paul McMahon, who is also president of Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, says CastleCourt has been a major component in the development of Belfast - and will be a cornerstone of the future.

"The next phase of the city's regeneration is the Ulster University project coming into the city and we are key to that location and, therefore, in a great place for the future," says Mr McMahon, adding that the newer Victoria Square shopping centre in Belfast is regarded as a complementary development to CastleCourt.

He adds: "What we should see is a balance between the two centres, who should feed off each other.

"We are very comfortable being a mainstream, mass-market shopping centre, while they are maybe a slightly more upmarket retailer."

Glyn Roberts, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association, which represents 1,400 traders across Northern Ireland, says CastleCourt has made an important contribution to Belfast bouncing back from its dark days and bringing more shoppers into the city centre as a whole.

He adds: "It was a very brave investment in very difficult times 25 years ago and it is good to see that it is thriving and moving forward.

"It is a crucial part of the retail offer in Belfast and we want to see more investments like this in our town and city centres rather than out-of-town."

CastleCourt boasts that it still has the biggest footfall of any shopping centre in Northern Ireland and its boss believes it has weathered the storm of the recession - even though it has lost a number of its biggest names, like Laura Ashley.

He says: "CastleCourt has always had the ability to attract both national and independent/local retailers and we have a good mix.

"We have also become an 'incubation environment' for some small businesses, who started trading on the mall, evolved into a kiosk and then into a shop."

Three years ago, the Hermes real estate company, which already had a major share in CastleCourt, took full control in a £400m deal to buy out the Westfield shopping centre group's interest in it and two other complexes in England.

Down the years, there have been a number of proposals to extend CastleCourt into the area at the back of the centre and Paul McMahon says they are still very much alive, with leisure and entertainment facilities plus different types of eating experiences as strong possibilities.

"We still have aspirations for expansion, because nowadays shoppers aren't only interested in shopping - it's an experiential package as well," he says.

At the minute, only a small number of shop units at CastleCourt lie empty, but the arrival of new businesses like the fashion firms Simply Be and Jacamo, which started out as online retailers, has been a confidence booster for the centre and for Belfast.

Wearing his Chamber president hat, Mr McMahon says: "There is evidence that we are growing again. We are seeing interest from new retailers into Belfast.

"We are seeing investment from institutional investors and we are seeing more confidence coming back on the consumer level where people are now starting to spend money again.

"We do have challenges in terms of rent and rates and those dynamics, but it's fair to say that retailers who come to Belfast do well and I am very optimistic and positive for the future.

"Unlike before, however, it is going to be a much slower, more organic growth, which is going to be healthier for everyone."

One part of that growth would be the mooted Royal Exchange Development just across Royal Avenue from CastleCourt in the North East quarter of Belfast, but the plans for another major retail centre plus a hotel and 200 apartments are still just that - plans.

If they do come to fruition, a large swathe of old Belfast could vanish, but observers say it's unlikely that there'd be many protests from historians like there were in the years before CastleCourt sprung up, when there were concerns about the knocking down of parts of the warren of little streets in and around Royal Avenue with their famous and idiosyncratic shops.

"They've gone and they're largely forgotten now," says one businessman. "But CastleCourt is the embodiment of the new Belfast."

CastleCourt in numbers

Shops: 80

Shoppers: an average of 13 million a year

Employees: more than 2,000

Retail space: 340,221 sq ft

Office space: 155,000 sq ft

Car parking spaces: 1,600

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