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Article by Sam McQuoid

[I have yet to find out the paper/magazine and the date.]

Now that Charles Gilpin - the'King' of Ulster property - is dead who will take up the crown?
Although the Belfast public scarcely knew Gilpin who, like most property developers, chose to take a low key approach to the media, the city's skyline is a lasting epitaph to a man who moulded its environment as no other in this century.
Queen's House and Olivetree House, which he wrested from the old Water Commissioners' yard in Fountain Street, were but the beginning of his Charles Clore like activities in the immediate post-war years.
His ability to visualise an office block where none had existed before save the city buildings like Windsor house (the tallest office block in the Province), Bedford House (the home of the Arts Council Gallery) and Griffin House (the headquarters of the Northern Bank Development Corporation).
The tenancy of the latter by the Northern Bank subsidiary is significant for it was this bank which supported him in many of his transactions and whose parent has now, since his death, taken over the role of operating partner in his company, Ulster Properties. [The emphasis is mine.]


Gilpin was not alone in the quarter of a century that saw the transformation of the centre from a bomb-damaged ruin of a Victorian Linen capital to a new style commercial and cultural city, struggling to catch up with the 'Swinging Sixties'.
Cecil McBride (often with a fledgling Graham Ferguson Lacey in attendance) and Gilpin made up a 'brethren' of property tycoons, so called because of their close friendship and church affiliation on the fringe of what was later to become known as born-again Christianity.
Since the collapse of the Ferguson Lacey empire, with which he continued to be associated, McBride is no longer living in Northern Ireland and the developments of his contemporary, John Crowe, may now have peaked. So where are the property tycoons - the men who will dream skyscrapers - to come from? And are the circumstances for their growth there?
The economic bubble of the sixties burst with the first shot from a terrorist's gun; the industrial growth which fed the office block boom adn Thatcher cut-backs have lacerated the ranks of the favoured big block tenant - the government agency.
Today there is scarcely a new office building in which a sizeable chunk of floor space cannot be taken up at a competitive rate. Existing tenants (if they are good ones) are guarded like water in the Sahara Desert.
"It would be unreasonable to assume that those who dealt in property in Northern Ireland became millionaires - and such is certainly not really the case today", says one financier who has been closely associated with major property developers over the past two decades.
There are, however, opportunities yet to "see a site and imagine what could be built upon it" which is one description of the property developer's talent.
Today they probably lie in the out-of-town creation of shopping centres adjacent to new (especially private) housing estates or depend upon a fine appreciation of how a new motorway system will re-direct commuter traffic.
There are also some clever conversions of existing linen and other warehouses as traders and small businesses begin creeping back into the city centre (although whether Gilpin would call this 'development' is debatable) and at least two developers (Michael Black in Londonderry and Edwin Dunlop in Bangor) have found merit (and, one supposes, profit) in the provision of industrial nursery units.


Shopping centre traders (like Jack Wilton who founded Crazy Prices and then sold to Associated British Foods through Stewarts) have now turned property developer and Jack Goldstone's background in retailing (not to mention that of brothers Alf and Dennis Scott) has added an edge to many property dealings.
Paddy Hunt's expertise in wine-selling (he and son, Paul, own Winemark) has given him the money and talent to become a shopping centre owner while Adam Scott is another developer who has demonstrated a fine appreciation of a trading site (as in Mooney's of Cornmarket). Crowe's background in the plumbing business, incidentally, gives him affinity with this group.
One of the most interesting new buildings in Belfast- the glass-domed office block that is replacing the old Ulster Club in High Street - is built upon the success of brothers Brian and Robert Calvert whose office equipment and design company is now one of the largest in Northern Ireland.
Like an increasing number of family businesses they look upon property as 'the company's pension' scheme; a sensible and cost-effective way of securing the future for initiators and staff.