In the spring of 1909, Belfast’s premier shipyard was thick with the smell of hot tar and burning coal as plumes of smoke drifted lazily upward into the air.
A thin dusting of soot lay on the ship maker Harland & Wolff’s nearby office windows, while outside, accompanied by a relentless deafening echo of metal clanging against metal, and the low hollow repetitive ‘conk’ sound of heavy wood joints being knocked together, three thousand labourers fulfilled their daily backbreaking work.
This was the making of the Titanic. One hundred and six years later, with the fateful ocean liner a graveyard 12,600ft beneath the waves, the huge engine sheds and joiners shops are gone, as are the thousands of shipyard workers who once filled the busy and bustling acres where the Titanic was made. But if plans by Titanic Quarter Ltd to build the Titanic Exhibition Centre (TEC) are approved this summer, this famous Belfast landmark could be awash with life once again.
Clive Corry, acting spokesperson of NIEO (Northern Ireland Event Organisers), explains to EN how the appetite to build the TEC was heightened by the need for a large new exhibition venue in a Belfast city centre or edge of city location, after the planned move away from the city of the previous venue provider.
“When event organisers became aware that the traditional venue location was no longer going to be available, there was a mutual feeling that they still very much needed a venue in Belfast,” says Corry.
“The NIEO members looked around for other options and came to the conclusion that, although there were a few great venues both in existence and currently being built, particularly for concerts and conferencing, none offered the 5,000sqm of open floor area which many exhibitions require.”
“Effectively, our options for shows in Belfast were suddenly very limited,” confirms Toby Wand, managing director at Fresh Montgomery, the organiser of the Irish Food Exhibition (IFEX).
"An out of town location would be unsuitable for most trade and consumer shows. With that in mind, a number of organisers came together under the umbrella of the NIEO to study the possibility of us all investing in building a new venue in Belfast. The Titanic location is impressive with excellent access, good public transport connections and an iconic name.”
The search ultimately led the NIEO, as a cooperative of organisers, to make an approach to Titanic Quarter Ltd, the company in charge of the urban regeneration of Belfast’s famous shipyard and waterfront which now includes the highly successful ‘Titanic Belfast’ visitor centre.
Titanic Quarter (TQ) already has great travel links, huge consumer footfall led by Titanic Belfast and SS Nomadic, a further education college, the Titanic Studios (where Game of Thrones is filmed), one of the UK’s best performing Science Parks, proposals for a 600,000 sq ft Financial Services Centre and plans to add four new hotels to an existing Premier Inn.
The positioning and potential economic uplift that a new exhibition centre in Titanic Quarter could give Belfast, had already put TEC on the developer’s radar. But as James Eyre, commercial director of Titanic Quarter, confirms to EN: “The desire and financial commitment from up to fourteen organisers to sign up for their first shows at the TEC, encouraged our team to make several trips to SECC in Glasgow and moved TQ’s proposal to build an exhibition space forward.”
“We went over to Glasgow for a look around, as the SECC is ‘dockside’ just like the TEC will be,” says Eyre. “The SECC attracts similar big events because of its offering and proximity. NIEO members and TQ firmly believe that TEC can offer an attractive option in Belfast that is very similar.”
According to Soraya Gadelrab, event director at Fresh Montgomery, NIEO members have played a pivotal role in getting TQ firmly behind TEC.
“They managed to get a number of key parties sitting round a table for a meeting at TQ’s head office,” says Gadelrab. “It was a physical demonstration by the organisers that impressed the executives of TQ. We were all sitting there saying 'If you build this, we will come'. It was a powerful moment. For TQ they had all their future customers sitting around a table providing an incredible show of strength.”
Initially, if the planning application is approved by planners and Belfast City Council, a temporary but substantial structure will be built by Arena Group on the space where Titanic was constructed.
It took three years to build Titanic, during which time workers placed 2,000 steel plates to form the hull, held together with more than three million rivets. If planning is approved, Arena Group will take just two months to construct the temporary structure for the TEC, if it starts in June/July. “The TEC structure is called a ‘TFS’ which stands for Tensioned Fabric Structure,” says Eyre. It will be 120 metres long with a 50 metre clear span.”
If planning approval and construction become a reality, the Wedding Journal Show will be the opening event for TEC on 18 September 2015. For Corry and his team, who run a number of exhibitions including the Self Build show, there is a nice synergy being connected to building something on the site where the Titanic was constructed. The Corry’s original family business, JP Corry & Company Ltd, provided timber for the joinery in Titanic.
The thought of men and women back working on this famous site is one that many, including Corry, Wand and Gadelrab are quietly excited by. “All the heavy pistons, engines, machinery and components of Titanic were built on top of the place which will now hopefully be the ground of TEC,” reflects Corry.
“This site has long lain dormant, but with the Titanic Exhibition Centre, now hopefully a reality, this area will be awash with working men and women again, which will be absolutely fantastic."
This article was first featured in the June issue of EN. Any comments? Email Jamie Wallis