Signature Living to have three new Belfast hotels built within 18 months

The first images of what the new Crumlin Court House hotel will look like
Gareth McKeown

LIVERPOOL property developer Lawrence Kenwright has said his Signature Living brand could create as many as seven new hotels in Northern Ireland.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Irish News this week Mr Kenwright, who was penniless just 10 years ago, said he hopes to have three of his initial four Belfast hotel projects open within 18 months and did not rule out looking at other areas of the north for future investment.

"It could be seven (hotels in Belfast), it all depends on deals that can be found, the right property for the project that we want."

"We hope to have all four open in 18 months, certainly three, I can't see the fourth yet as we haven't nailed the fourth, but certainly three can be open in 18 months," he said.

The investment, of between £80 million and £110 million in Belfast almost didn't happen though, with the city initially overlooked in favour of Cardiff.

“We were parking our money in Cardiff, but we weren't accepted well by the local MP. He didn't believe in our model," he explained.

"So we decided to leave Cardiff and park the money promised to us by our investors to Belfast. We got welcomed to Belfast with open arms, we were amazed, we deal with 13 councils now.

"Cardiff has got us back, but initially Cardiff's loss was Belfast's gain."

Of the four projects earmarked for Belfast, two are known to the public - The £15 million George Best themed hotel at the Scottish Mutual Building at Donegall Square South and the £25 million redevelopment of the Crumlin Road Courthouse.

Mr Kenwright, a distant cousin of Everton Football Club chairman Bill, told the Irish News he expects construction to start on the George Best project next month, with the new 83-bedroom boutique hotel to open between April and June next year.

The property company, which operates across the UK, specialises in the conversion of derelict and unused buildings and has previous experience in styling a hotel in honour of a footballing icon, completing the Shankly Hotel, inspired by former Liverpool manager Bill. The latest project will follow along similar lines.

"One of the main attributes we learnt from the Shankly was the stories that resonate in every room. So in George Best as you can in Shankly you'll see a story by a personal friend or an ex-footballer," he said

"The idea is you've got to reflect the DNA of the building along with the person that's in there so George is coming into the Scottish Mutual. It will be high-end with a bit of a racy feel. We know the designs, we know what we're going to do, but we're still working on it at the moment."

The Crumlin Road development, the first images of which are shown in today's Irish News, is awaiting planning approval, with Mr Kenwright keen to get on site as soon as possible given the state of disrepair the former court house has fallen into.

"We need to get the rubble away, We need to bolt in the scaffolding to keep the walls up, we need to get the beams in to get the roof on, that's a speed thing, because we need to go in before winter. Once winter comes it's a different ball game."

"Donegall Square, George Best I don't have to do a lot. Crumlin Road I have got it all to do. I've got to make this into a tourist destination in itself. I've got to make sure those stories that resonate with Crumlin Road are out there on social platforms to create that interest and intrigue. As an outsider this is the most interesting thing I've ever come across."

"Crumlin's the big one for me. It's the toughest one and is going to take the most of my time so that's the one I will love getting involved in," he said

The hotel developer has pledged to have the 160 room hotel open next year in some guise, although he admitted it could be with a reduced occupancy to begin with, akin to a similar redevelopment of the old Coal Exchange building in Cardiff.

Although at this stage tight-lipped on the remaining two Belfast projects Mr Kenwright revealed to the Irish News that they are two core city centre locations in need of redevelopment, with one sale agreed and plans for a 160 bedroom hotel due to be announced in the coming weeks.

The vacant Eagle Star House on Upper Queen Street has been mooted as one possible location.

Once the four hotels are completed around 400 full and part-time jobs are set to be created to add to similar numbers involved in construction.

A further boost to the flourishing Belfast hotel market.

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