No plans to reacquire Scottish Mutual site, says Galgorm MD

No plans to reacquire Scottish Mutual site, says Galgorm MD
Galgorm Collection MD, Colin Johnston.

The Galgorm Collection’s managing director, Colin Johnson, has said that while the group would consider buying back the Scottish Mutual Building in Belfast – currently home to Signature Living’s beleaguered George best themed hotel project – no approaches have been made and no contract has been drawn up.

Colin was speaking to LCN today (Wednesday) in response to recent speculation in the local press around a possible re-acquisition of the property. The Galgorm Collection, which includes the luxury Galgorm Spa & Golf Resort near Ballymena and The Rabbit at Templepatrick, bought the building from Nama in 2013 for £2m then sold it on to Signature Living in 2017 for £6m.

Signature Living and its founder, Lawrence Kenwright, intended to transform the building into a George Best themed hotel. Work on that project has been ongoing for several years but has been bedeviled by planning-related difficulties and its doors have never opened to the public.

Colin Johnston indicated that The Galgorm Collection will be taking a cautious approach to investment going forward:

‘I think that we could find ourselves in the position by March or April of next year where we could see businesses struggling,’ he told LCN. ‘We will be looking at various schemes coming to an end, VAT bills will be due, and unless there is significantly more intervention from government, we could face a lot of problems.’

And in relation to the suggestion that the group might buy back the Scottish Mutual building, he said:

‘We had always considered that there might be a number of opportunities that would arise toward the beginning to the middle of next year and whether we would be in a position to move on them all comes back to things like the capacity in our own business. Do we have the right people? What about the timing, the price? There are lots of pieces in this and everything has to align.’

Refusing to rule-out a reacquisition, however, Colin said:

‘Covid is going to come to an end. At this moment, perhaps, people can’t see it, but the restrictions will end, trade will turn and society will move on. [Belfast] city centre won’t be the same as it was before, but it will still be the centre of Belfast.’

Looking at developments elsewhere in the group, Colin revealed that work on a £7m refurbishment plan at The Rabbit was continuing while the property was closed to the public, and he added:

‘We are lucky enough to have self-catering accommodation at Galgorm [Resort] and that has allowed us to keep some of the site open and keep a number of staff working. Also, the rejigging of furlough has been a big benefit and pretty much all of the staff have gone on that.’

He was also critical of recent calls by medical professionals here for stricter lockdown measures which, he feels, unfairly target the hospitality industry:

‘We are not the enemy,’ he said. ‘The evidence has shown that closure of hospitality accounts for a 0.1 to 0.2 reduction in the transmission rate. What we have to learn to do is co-exist and so it’s about the measures that we can put in place now to reduce the risk of the infection spreading.’