John McLellan: An Exchange of ideas that’s got us mystified

EICC chief executive Marshall Dallas was a no-show. Picture: Jane Barlow
EICC chief executive Marshall Dallas was a no-show. Picture: Jane Barlow
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There we were, the city’s Housing & Economy committee, all set to hear from the EICC’s chief executive about his vision for a hotel and hospitality school to develop his business, but where was he? Marshall Dallas was on the list of deputations circulated the previous evening, but was nowhere to be seen.

Alas, dear readers, I can’t tell you what happened because the explanation was eventually provided under the confidential “B Agenda” but let’s just say it has all added to the intrigue surrounding the Conference Centre’s plans and the Fountainbridge development.

The good news for the EICC is that the door might still be open for a deal with its new neighbour in Exchange 2, the ScottishPower-owned site which finally got the go-ahead for redevelopment in March after 12 years of talking.

I first wrote about the Exchange 2 masterplan some years ago and then again in November last year, when the Dewar Place complex and the hospitality school idea, proposed by Duddingston House Properties and financial backer Catalyst Capital, was set to go before planning councillors.

The project is set to be completed in 2020 and in March Catalyst Capital chairman Julian Newiss said: “We have worked very closely with the council to ensure that the original vision for the Exchange district can be fully realised.”

The scheme had the hotel and hospitality academies at its heart, with Queen Margaret and Napier Universities lined up to provide the teaching. Mr Newiss added: “We have specifically designed the development to respond to the council’s desire for more high-end hotels and offices, and a powerful vision for new tourism and training facilities to help people secure careers in the industry.”

But according to an official source, talks between the EICC and the developer Duddingston House Properties faltered in February last year, although perhaps Mr Newiss’s use of past tense was telling.

Then this week, another source close to the project said the council went cold as far back as October 2016, apparently concerned about over-emphasis on the EICC after the sale of the Atria next door the previous April.

Completed in 2013, the Atria office development funded the EICC’s subterranean Lennox Suite extension which has transformed its capabilities. Fear of over-development would therefore be a strange reason for the council to step back from enhancing its own asset, vital for attracting business tourism and the city’s international marketing programme.

The developer is still in contact with both Napier and Queen Margaret Universities about the academies, so where does all this leave the EICC and its suggestion that it should operate a 400-bed hotel on the council-owned India Quay site in Fountainbridge?

With decades of experience as a hotelier, Mr Dallas has put up a robust case, but council officers want to turn the commercial element of India Quay over to expanding tech companies who have grown too big for incubator units at places like Codebase. Community activists want it for the same eclectic mix of cafes, creative enterprises and charities they originally hoped would occupy the old Boroughmuir High.

The community bid is backed by Green councillor Gavin Corbett, who accused me of being opportunist in my support for the EICC concept, but the fact is the council needs to come up with a plan for the EICC as much as one for Fountainbridge.

I’m told an Exchange 2 deal is still possible, but who knows? There are bound to be disagreements about particular projects and that’s perfectly reasonable, but what’s troubling about recent events is a sense that decisions affecting the city’s future are not receiving sufficient examination until the die is already cast.

Sure, I’m an opposition councillor and the administration is hardly going to keep me in the loop, but when even administration councillors say they don’t understand what’s happening, something really is amiss.