A couple of weeks ago, a consortium of hedge funds clubbed together to raise $19.5m to buy bric-a-brac from the bottom of the ocean. At first glance, these 5,500 items bore no relation to each other; a bowler hat, the sleek curves of a bronze angel, a steel door. Their immense value derives solely from the fact they’d been salvaged from the most famous shipwreck of all time: the Titanic.
The American company that owned the collection went bust and was forced to sell, prompting a fierce bidding war between the hedge funds and a group of British museums determined to bring the artefacts ‘home’ to Northern Ireland, where the doomed liner was built. Though they had impressive backing, from the National Geographic Society, Royal Museums Greenwich and Titanic film director James Cameron, they backed out after failing to raise beyond their final bid of $19.2m.
No one knows what the hedge funds plan to do with the historic haul – saying only that they intend to use it as a tourist draw – but the museum curators would have brought the collection to the Titanic Quarter, a stretch of waterfront in Belfast that’s spearheading an architectural and cultural revival in the heart of the city.
“We want to take ownership of the Titanic,” says James Eyre, commercial director of the Titanic Quarter. “If you go to China and say ‘Northern Ireland’, they don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you relate it back to the Titanic, they do.” The ocean liner, built here by Harland & Wolff, the largest shipbuilder in the world at the time, may have sunk on its maiden voyage, but for Belfast, it tells a different story, one of globally recognised innovation and engineering excellence.
According to Eyre, the Titanic is the third most recognised ‘brand’ in the world, after McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. That may seem absurd to us, but it isn’t to the Chinese who are building a full-scale replica in Sichuan, or to Australian billionaire Clive Palmer, who has put $500m into another replica that’s due to set sail from Dubai in 2022, then do two-weekly voyages from the UK to New York.
The global fascination attached to the Titanic saw many criticise the UK museum group bid for the remaining artefacts as an anachronistic attempt to create a one-nation home for a tragedy that captured the imagination of the world.
Even though it lost the collection, Belfast is still staking its claim as the number one tourist destination for all things Titanic. Rising from its historic docks, the Titanic Quarter is one of the largest waterfront regeneration projects in Europe. At its heart is the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction, designed by American-born, British-raised architect Eric Kuhne, who Londoners will know best for City shopping mall One New Change and the light-up bridge linking Stratford’s old town to Westfield and the Olympic Park. Designed to be the exact height and depth of the Titanic’s hull, it’s a stunning piece of architecture that manages to be striking in its modernity, while still transporting the onlooker back in time to appreciate the incredible size and scale of the cruise liner.
Inside, there’s a £77m exhibition that encompasses everything from the ship’s design to its construction, to the lifestyle on board, its passengers, the physics of how it sank, the public enquiries that followed and the search for the wreckage on the ocean floor. Apparently actor Liam Neeson visited he said he could only stay for 45 minutes, but ended up in there for hours. Easily done.
Half funded by the Northern Ireland tourist board and half by private investment, officials are hoping it has as transformative an effect on Belfast as Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum did on Bilbao. Since 2012, the exhibit has attracted 4.5m visitors from 145 countries, winning the World’s Leading Visitor Attraction Award at the World Travel Awards 2016. It’s estimated this has brought in an additional £160m in tourism spend alone.
In fact, the Titanic association is so profitable, Dublin-based developers Harcourt bought the once-derelict site it sits on and branded all 185 acres of it. During the last decade and a half of development and £425m of investment to date, it’s laid plans to completely transform the area. Reflected in the glassy hull of the Titanic Belfast exhibition is the Titanic Hotel, a £28m five star establishment built in the converted headquarters of shipbuilders Harland & Wolff.
A cocktail bar and brasserie now operate in a space that used to be occupied by long tables, where the Titanic’s engineers would unscroll their ground-breaking designs. Eerie silhouettes frame windows, as if the ship’s ghostly passengers are walking the same corridors, and plaques adorn the walls, explaining who these people may have been. Rooms contain framed eulogies to Harland & Wolff employees and detailed models are on display for enthusiasts to pore over before dinner.
Further along the waterfront lies Gateway House, which is fully occupied by Citi Group, and is seen as a template for further office development on the site, luring larger companies with cheap rents and a lower cost of living. So far, big name American companies including Microsoft, IBM and HBO have offices on the Titanic Quarter site.
The latter has been something of a sensation for Belfast, too. HBO’s decision to shoot Game of Thrones in a studio visible from the Titanic Quarter has drawn untold tourism, jobs and specialist training to the area. A decade of shooting the most popular TV show on earth has bolstered Belfast’s reputation as a filming location throughout the industry, having now also made prime-time BBC dramas Line of Duty and The Fall, with Superman prequel series Krypton, a Game of Thrones prequel series being filmed at new Belfast Harbour Studios and a new Stars Wars movie also rumoured to be shot in the city. The importance of these projects can’t be underestimated: Game of Thrones contributed an estimated £148m to the Northern Irish economy and created around 15,500 permanent jobs.
And where are all these stars going to live while shooting? Harcourt has already thought of that, retaining a number of the new homes it’s built at Abercorn Residential Complex (otherwise known as ARC) to lease to the actors. Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) was “very happy” in her penthouse, according to Eyre. There are 474 one, two and three bedroom apartments in mid-rise buildings curving around landscaped gardens, ranging from around £140,000 for a one bed to £350,000 for a 1,095sqft penthouse with triple aspect views.
With 1,000 residents moved in and 10 food and drink outlets on site, the brownfield land has planning permission for 2,000 more homes. Yet investment alone doesn’t always equal growth. Northern Ireland was hit hard by the recession, with many investors left financially ruined. Property prices and the number of homes being built are still down a third compared to what they were pre-crash, and border issues post-Brexit have cast a cloud of uncertainty on the market, though the locals paint a resilient picture.
With Dublin just under two hours away by train, it’s perfectly possible companies could relocate to the Republic if they want to stay in the EU. And without a sitting government at Stormont since January 2017, there’s even talk of returning to direct rule from Westminster if the Northern Irish executive doesn’t restore its power-sharing arrangement in the next 10 months.
Neal Morrison, Belfast director at estate agent Savills, which is handling the sale of homes at ARC, is reluctant to go into details about what he’d like to see come out of the negotiations, saying only that he hoped “we’ll end up aligned in some way to Europe and some way to the UK and have a foot in both camps”.
Still, for those willing to take the risk, there’s the potential to make money. One new building on the cusp of the Titanic Quarter was valued at £6.5m in 2007, bought by a developer for £300,000 after the crash, and flats are now selling there for £135,000 each. So if you have faith that a Brexit deal will be struck and Northern Ireland won’t see a hard border, you might want to hop over the Irish Sea.