Three cheers for Belfast and an Osasuna! for Bilbao
A NEW PERSPECTIVE: Looking out over Belfast from the 23rd floor of the spectacular Grand Central Hotel in Belfast which opened this week. Enjoying pride of place atop the hotel is the seahorse, a centuries’ old symbol of Belfast.
Despite political logjams, there continue to be feats of entrepreneurial derring-do which can only uplift.
One such business achievement is the opening this week of the new Grand Central Hotel in Belfast city centre.
I had the opportunity to view the towering addition to our hotel offering with Howard Hastings, the chap who came up with the idea of converting a crumbling and unloved old commercial building into the city’s foremost hostelry.
He not only had the vision but the Hastings family had the courage to plough their own money into what is a bet on Belfast’s bright future.
I have no doubt their investment will be returned manifold as others take inspiration from their belief in Belfast.
So a cheer, for sure, for the Hastings family.
And raise a glass too for Cayan, a Boston-based financial transactions company which now boasts 250 workers in their Belfast port offices. This week, Cayan celebrated five years of growth in Belfast with a birthday bash. Co-founder Henry Helgeson (who used to fly a Mig fighter jet in his spare time) wasn’t shy with his praise for his Belfast crew. “Coming here was the best business decision I ever made,” he told the celebratory gathering.
Our third cheer goes to new Lord Mayor of Belfast Deirdre Hargey, who follows a strong line of female first citizens over recent years. She is a great ambassador for the changing Belfast: our paths crossed today at the Eid celebration of the Bangladeshi community (below).
But keep your glasses charged for one last Osasuna! or Cheers! for the city of Bilbao. I had the opportunity to visit this great European capital this week to attend a peace building conference with the Basque independence movement leader Arnaldo Otegi (below). Dubbed ‘the Basque Gerry Adams’, Arnaldo has been credited with the huge leaps forward made in the Basque peace process over recent years, despite the trenchant opposition of the Spanish Government.
I also took time out to walk this stunning and reborn city with its starting Guggenheim Museum again and was delighted to be able to pop into to the magnificent City Hall to renew my acquaintance with Bilbao Mayor Juan Mari Aburto.
Bilbo: Mayor Aburto has ambitious plans for Bilbao’s future
The Mayor tells me that, impressed by a visit to the new city centre campus of the Ulster University in Belfast back in 2015 during the Belfast International Homecoming, he returned to Bilbao determined to make third level education a key part of the regeneration of the all-but-abandoned Zorrotzaurre former industrial area of his city. Not one for doing things by half, Mayor Aburto has now come forward with a urban renewal plan which includes three universities: DigiPen of the US, Kunsthaldesign school of Germany and a new campus for the famed Mondragon co-operative.
Employing 73,000 people across 261 businesses, Mondragon is the world’s most famous co-operative and the biggest industrial conglomerate in the Basque Country. Its university enjoys a stellar reputation but until now had no presence in the Basque Country’s largest city.
I have no doubt exchange visits between the two cities will continue but given what we have learnt over recent years in Belfast about leveraging sports to build economic bridges, I’m also hopeful that we may yet see the fulfillment of a dream I share with Mayor Aburto: bringing the famed Athletic Bilbao — that great pride of the Basque Country — to Belfast for a pre-season friendly.
That would bring a thousand cheers to both our changing cities.