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After a bumper FDI year, the city of Belfast was out in force at this year’s Mipim real estate conference in Cannes. Cathy Mullan went along to see what the Northern Irish capital was doing to put itself on the map.

Belfast’s history has not determined its future. In a past riven by a 30-year sectarian war, the Northern Irish city was associated with terrorism and economic underdevelopment. Nowadays it is vibrant, young and forward-looking with bags of youthful energy, and is a destination for good food, great craic and, most importantly, foreign investment.

According to data from greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets, 2016 was a record year for investment in Belfast. It welcomed 31 projects, the highest number since the database records began in 2003. Of all projects in 2016, nearly 55% were in the software and IT services sector, and projects were realised from some major IT companies.

These include US-based consultancy Deloitte, which announced in May 2016 it would create 300 jobs in the city in its data analytics and cyber security operations, and US-based technology company HighWire Press, which invested nearly $9m in its local office, allowing the company to expand its operations into Europe. CEO Dan Filby cited Belfast’s developer community and talent pool as key reasons for the investment.

Fast-growing tech sector

Suzanne Wylie, CEO of Belfast City Council (BCC), said at the ‘Belfast Goes to Market’ event – held as the city was preparing to bring 70 delegates to Cannes for the four-day Mipim real estate exhibition and conference – that Belfast was the fastest growing tech sector in the UK outside London, and is set to employ 80,000 people by 2020.

Belfast went on to host 22 events over three days of Mipim, in an effort to grab the attention of investors. The city’s key selling message spread over seven main pillars: talent (the rich vein that exists in the city); tax (the corporation tax rate due to drop to 12.5%); clusters (strong in the financial technology and cyber sectors); location (only UK location with and EU border post-Brexit); sectors (fast growing); track record of return on investment; and quality of life.

According to real estate company CBRE, demand for grade-A office space in Belfast has increased by 160%, and BCC is ready to address that. The city’s strategy for development, the Belfast Agenda, sets out the council’s roadmap for taking the city forward. The aim is for job numbers to increase by 50,000 over 20 years, and population by 70,000. The city aims to attract £1bn of FDI by 2020, and to this end, trade missions are an annual occurrence. In 2017, the council will visit Shenyang in China, and Nashville, Boston and Austin in the US, to set out Belfast’s stall.

There officials will highlight the city’s increasingly important reputation as a tourist destination, with visitor numbers set to double by 2020, as laid out in the Belfast Agenda. Huge developments are underway in terms of infrastructure and facilities: the University of Ulster campus that will be opened in the north of the city will anchor Belfast’s creative and culture sector. Meanwhile, the Translink transport hub planned for the south of the city will see annual footfall of between 8 million and 13 million people annually.

Tourist attraction

A new visitor attraction is planned that is similar in scale to the Titanic visitor attraction, which opened in 2012 at a cost of £77m and was named as the world’s leading tourist attraction at the World Travel Awards in 2016. A third film studio has also just been completed at the Giant’s Park site, a 340-acre development north of the city, boosting the city’s already burgeoning reputation as a destination for creative sector investment.

When trying to assess the biggest challenges that investors face, a council representative finally settled on the fact that the city is not producing financial services graduates as fast as investors were demanding them. To this end, the council is working closely with all relevant stakeholders and local education institutions to ensure more directly relevant courses are provided, to boost the talent that investors need and want in the city. Many would agree that this is a nice problem to have. 

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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