The 175m first phase of the Europe China Trading Hub project in Creggan has been granted planning permission, the Westmeath Independent can reveal.
Westmeath County Council today (Friday) gave the planning green light to the developers, Athlone Business Park Ltd, for the project, subject to 47 conditions.
It's the first in a potential five phases of an overall 1.4bn masterplan which would create up to 9,000 jobs and attract up to 30,000 visitors per week to the town.
The hub is designed to allow Chinese businesses to showcase their goods in order to sell on to the European Union and United States markets.
The developers hope to be on site for phase one in 18-24 months with a construction timeframe of a further two years.
Some 1,200 construction jobs are promised in phase one, along with 1,520 permanent posts - of which two thirds would be for Irish and EU nationals.
Welcoming the granting of planning permission, John Tiernan, CEO of Athlone Business Park Ltd, said: "We consider this a gigantic step towards the realisation of the potential 1,520 jobs that are available here in Phase One."
He said two thirds of these jobs would be in areas such as marketing, business languages, legal, catering and maintenance.
Mr Tiernan added that the planning approval would "send a very positive message to our Chinese investors".
"We are delighted that following a very thorough examination by Westmeath County Council that the form of the proposals and the site have been deemed to tick all the right boxes from a planning point of view."
The 175m first phase of the project includes two 'mega' exhibition halls, with each two-storey hall containing space for 270 display areas.
Each of these halls spans over 30,000 square metres. There will be another major multi-purpose hall (known as the China hall) for visiting exhibitions with space for 135 separate display areas.
Another nine smaller one-storey exhibitions halls are also proposed for phase one, totalling 22,000 square metres. These halls are designed for larger, bulkier exhibits such as electric cars and machinery which would not be suitable for the smaller display areas in the mega exhibition halls.
Underground parking to cater for up to 1,370 car parking spaces, as well as a bus terminus and bus bays and a four-storey reception building are also included in the first phase.
Mr Tiernan stressed that discussions with Chinese investors had indicated that the Athlone site was the preferred option for such a trading hub in Europe.
But he cautioned: "If it doesn't happen in Athlone, it will happen somewhere else in Europe."
However, Mr Tiernan said that financing for the project could not be completed without the full planning permission, whether in the absence of an appeal to An Bord Pleanala, or after the appeal process.
Developers hope to fund the project through a combination of pre-sales of the 540 floorspace units combined with an element of capital investment from third parties.