Bigger than Dublin’s Liffey Valley and Blanchardstown shopping centres put together, the overall exhibition centre is reckoned to be the largest development built in Ireland.
The €175m first phase of the Europe China Trading Hub at Creggan, near Athlone, will be a base for Chinese companies to promote trade and commerce with Europe and the rest of the world.
The site will employ 1,530 people after an initial boost of 1,200 construction jobs.
The development – which will also have a special Irish division to promote domestic business – aims to provide buyers, traders and manufacturers with a one-stop shop to assess products before placing bulk orders.
While discussions have taken place with some Chinese manufacturers, no companies have signed up to base themselves at the Athlone facility.
Athlone Business Park Ltd, the company behind the scheme, believes it will attract 1,750 visitors every day.
It claims it would end the need for business leaders on the US east coast to go through time-consuming visa applications and travel arrangements to get into China to see factories and products and place orders.
Phase one is made up of an oval-shaped four-storey reception building 20m (66ft) high, housing customer service facilities, meeting rooms and administrative offices, and the near 13,000 square metre China Hall for themed temporary exhibitions.
It is envisaged China Hall would be transformed every few months to showcase a different sector of Chinese manufacturing and promote associated businesses.
There will also two 30,000 square metre curved roof showcase spaces known as Mega Exhibition Halls offering companies flexible layout trading space for multiple showrooms – about 270 smaller units at a time.
The roofs will be fitted with special grass or sedum with solar panels. The hub is also designed to house nine smaller exhibition halls some of which can be sub-divided.
Concerts have been banned at the exhibition centres and it will only be allowed to operate 10am to 7pm Monday to Friday.
Developers have been told to put in place a bus service to and from Dublin Airport for visitors and another in and out of Athlone town, as well as cycle ways, for employees.
It has been speculated that when the development is complete the entire five phases of the site will have cost €1.4bn.
An Bord Pleanala attached 37 conditions, mostly technical, to the planning decision.
Barry Kehoe, director of services in Westmeath County Council’s planning division, said the authority welcomed the green light.
“We welcome the positive decision and we hope that it proceeds as soon as possible because of the economic impact in the region,” he said.
In An Taisce’s appeal to An Bord Pleanala, it warned that a similar development has been planned for the Wirral near Liverpool and smaller-scale trade hubs have already been established across Europe.
An Taisce claimed Athlone would not be able to compete with access to Liverpool through its ports and airports.