Chinese investors are planning a “Shanghai-on-Shannon,” a city in Co Westmeath that will act as a trading hub for Europe. It is believed that a formal planning application is to be filed with Westmeath County Council early next month.

Rumors have been spreading about the project for nearly two years.

“It all appeared quite nebulous until the Taoiseach spoke publicly about it in late June,” the editor of the Westmeath Independent, Tadhg Carey, told the Irish Times. “That seemed to make it more real in the eyes of people here.”

Brian Cowen confirmed he met with those involved with the project, saying he was exploring the potential of the idea.

The Westmeath Independent published an image and excerpts from a preliminary design statement describing “the greatest commercial and trade centre, tour centre, cultural centre, amusement centre and international conference centre in Europe.”
The elaborate plans include a convention center, five-star hotels, apartment complexes, a railway station, a school, a medical center, fire station, and a golf course."

There would also be a commercial exhibition area with up to 20 trade halls. The site could draw 20,000 to 35,000 visitors per week, promoters are predicting.

The story of the project has drawn international attention.

“Ambitious Chinese companies are pouring money into cash-strapped Ireland and Greece to gain a foothold in Europe,” wrote The Guardian.

Local TD Mary O’Rourke met the prospective investors last year and was given a detailed presentation on the project.

“They laid the plans out on my living room floor,” she says. “It was all very intriguing and even a little mystifying.”

She says she thought it might be a good opportunity until the investors mentioned who they thought should work there.

“They were proposing that all the people employed in the building and the manning of it would be Chinese. I told them I didn’t think that would be acceptable. We would need a mix of Chinese and Irish. They were talking about 12,000 people but, at that time, the plan was very vast, very fanciful. As I understand it, they have now changed their plan,” she said.

Promoters met with the prime minister and the Minister of State for Housing and Local Services, Michael Finneran. Located in Athlone’s eastern hinterland, the proposed site was designated a developing area by the Department of the Environment in 2008, and therefore comes under Finneran’s jurisdiction.

“What is being proposed is a massive trading hub, which will allow Chinese companies to display their wares in large exhibition halls for the European market and beyond,” says Finneran. “Buyers will be able to do all their purchasing in one location instead of going to China, where they might have to travel to several cities. This will save them a lot of time and money.”

He went on to say that the complex will not include manufacturing factoring, despite media reports.

“We have been a great gateway for US investment into Europe and I think we can do the same for Chinese investment,” Brian Cowen has said.