At the turn of the 20th century Belfast was a world leader in engineering, shipbuilding and textiles. At the turn of the 21st century, the city found itself lagging behind in the present growth industries, such as biotechnology, information technology and telecoms.

Many a city has found itself in a similar situation, but it is fair to say that Belfast has an added challenge. Thirty years of strife and sectarian violence hardly made the city attractive to investors, and as a result the economy was and remains heavily public-sector dominated.

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Belfast’s major problems are, for the most part, behind it now. “Since the Good Friday agreement things have settled down and apart from some sections of the media and a few politicians, the world has moved on,” says Hugh Cormican, managing director and co-founder of Andor Technology, a Belfast-based manufacturer of scientific imaging equipment which was floated for £30m on the London Stock Exchange in December.

The focus is now on information communications technology (ICT) and life sciences. Belfast’s nascent ICT cluster includes companies that are focused on customer relationship management (CRM) software development, mobile telecoms and WAP technology, and financial services software (mainly back-office software for the US and UK markets). The life sciences cluster is made up companies in the business of diagnostics, devices and clinical trials.

Makeover

To help cultivate its new image and make room for new arrivals, the city has had to undergo a drastic facelift. “Economic growth has meant we have had to expand the city centre to accommodate it,” says Brendan Mullan, chief executive of Investment Belfast. Old, rundown shipyards and warehouses have been renovated, and the city itself is spilling out across the River Lagan, which has been dredged.

In February John Spellar, minister for social development, announced far-reaching proposals for what he termed Belfast’s “decade of renewal”, including a £14m capital investment programme for the city centre. This so-called Public Realm Strategy sets out a five to 10-year environmental and streetscape improvement programme, with funding for two or three major schemes, by 2008.

“We aim to achieve world-class standards in urban design, maintenance and management of the streets and public spaces at the heart of the city,” Mr Spellar said. “We aim to enhance the attractiveness of the city centre to encourage higher levels of shoppers and visitors, which in turn will attract investors.”

He also set a target date of March 2007 for Laganside’s regeneration. Investment in this part of the city should reach £1bn by then, bringing 15,000 jobs and £827m of private investment.

Shopaholics

The city wants to turn itself into a major retail destination. It is sprucing up the ageing Castlecourt Shopping Centre, wooing large department stores and drawing up master plans for shopping districts in the north-west and north-east. But those plans pale in comparison to the ambitious Victoria Square project in the heart of the city.

“Victoria Square remains the government’s priority to spearhead retail-led regeneration and provides the bedrock for renewing the city centre,” Mr Spellar said. “The development of the north-east and north-west quarters needs to complement Victoria Square by expanding the retail sector at a pace which maximises opportunity for investors and consumers.”

The scale of the Victoria Square project is like nothing Belfast has ever seen before: a £300m retail centre that ranks among Europe’s largest urban regeneration projects. Dutch developers AM are creating a multi-level, open, pedestrianised streetscape with 75,000 square metres of retail and leisure space. It will include shops, bars, restaurants, clubs and 90 apartments. Elegant public gardens will be topped by a dome with a viewing zone.

The idea is to turn Belfast, currently a nine-to-five city, into a 24-hour one, by enticing people to stick around after work and on the weekends.

Victoria Square is scheduled for completion in 2007 but other changes are already evident. The once derelict gasworks site hosts the Halifax’s operations centre; Clarendon Dock is now populated by firms such as Prudential Corp, Regis and Zurich; and upmarket hotels are popping up with investments from SAS Radisson and Hilton.

The city has even learned to take pride in the little-known fact that the Titanic was built at a Belfast shipyard. What is known as the Titanic Quarter is now home to the 2500-acre site of the Northern Ireland Science Park and will soon also accommodate 400 waterside apartments and eventually a memorial to the ill-fated ship, through a joint venture between the Port of Belfast and Dublin developers Harcourt.

Feelgood factor

Where the City Hall building, which is about to celebrate its centenary, is testament to the confidence of Belfast in the early 1900s, Mr Mullan says, the £30m Waterfront Hall – a conference and concert centre built on the site of the old cattle market – indicates a new determination. This is a critical breakthrough for a city that had little to feel good about for three decades.

“Our biggest challenge can be summed up in one word,” Mr Mullan says. “Confidence.” It is needed at three levels – in the people, within the business community, and finally, in the international community.

There are signs of the first two but the last will take some time. “Investors must see beyond the CNN headlines,” Mr Mullan says. The May 5 British general elections, in which hardliners on both sides of the sectarian divide swept into power, are unlikely to mitigate the ‘CNN factor’.

But there is something perhaps more important than confidence brewing in Belfast: hope. A 17-metre metal statue, The Ring of Thanksgiving, has been erected on the banks of the Lagan to symbolise hope. A more tangible sign is the Bank of Ireland doing something it would have never done a few years ago: it defiantly put an all-glass front on its downtown Belfast building.

In fact, the recent demolition of the old Churchill building to make room for the Victoria Square project was, city officials remark in a way that is both ironic and hopeful, “Belfast’s last ever controlled explosion”.