Hopes that hundreds of jobs could be created locally from the development of a new International Chinese Hub outside Athlone, which was given the green light by An Bord Pleanála last week, have been dampened somewhat this week.
Experts in Longford have warned that there are still many considerations and much clarification required in respect of the development before employment statistics can be determined. Major concerns have also emerged over the future of medium and small enterprises across the midlands, competing against cheaper, locally manufactured goods.
Longford Chamber of Commerce President Seamus Butler told the Leader that the Hub would be a “shop window for Chinese produce” and that while a similar venture had been attempted in the UK, “it was still waiting to get off the ground”.
The commercial enterprise, which is based just 10 miles from Ballymahon at Greegan, Co Westmeath, is expected to attract investment from Europe and America to the region, and will provide 1,500 jobs in the initial stages of construction and serve as a platform on which Chinese businesses and companies can break into the European Market.
“The construction phase may bring employment, but having seen for myself the Chinese operating in Africa and in other parts of the world, they tend to employ their own,” Mr Butler added. “It is good to see it proposed, but it would be a concern as to the sort of goods they will be selling, because there is the potential to create loss to the local economy in respect of that.
“I would prefer if a Chinese company came into the Midlands and set up a factory, where they would employ local people. There will certainly be spin-off in the service industry, such as hotels and restaurants, as a direct result of the hub’s development outside Athlone, but regardless, there are a number of question marks hanging over it and I do not believe that it is the solution to unemployment in the midlands.”
CEO of County Longford Enterprise Board, Michael Nevin said that there were “a number of obstacles to cross” before it could be established if local employment would be generated by the development.
“We are definitely interested in speaking with the relevant authorities in Westmeath to see how Longford can benefit from this,” Mr Nevin explained, adding that the potential for Longford “could be huge”.
“It is an ambitious plan and it will certainly serve as a financial boost to the region, but there are still many hurdles to cross before anything is guaranteed. There is no doubt that it has the potential to provide Longford with a major boost in terms of employment, attracting foreign investment and generating tourism through the hospitality side, but only if it progresses as planned.
“There are a lot of hurdles and obstacles to cross as it is only in the very early stages of development; but definitely if it does go ahead as planned, it could be very, very significant to Longford.”
Meanwhile, Deputy James Bannon (FG) “cautiously” welcomed the international Chinese Hub.
“I am anxious that the State does its homework on this,” said Deputy Bannon. “We must protect our own indigenous industry, while at the same time attracting foreign investment into the Country. I would hope that local people will be employed, but there is a lot of clarification needed about that at this stage; there would need to be a guarantee that jobs will be made available to local people.
“While this is an investment, its benefits to the midlands need to be investigated further and it will take three years to construct and develop the first phase.”