Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was in Athlone on Thursday last to perform the topping out ceremony on a new town centre development. The new €500 million retail centre in the heart of Athlone will create 1,000 and the anchor tenant for the new development will be British retail giant Marks and Spenser. Speaking at the ceremony, the Taoiseach said, ‘I understand that this impressive €500m development will be the largest regional shopping and leisure centre in the country. And of course, its situation here in the midlands, at the crossroads of the country, could hardly be more central. ‘The one thousand new jobs that will be provided by the centre will be a very welcome boost to the area. In the past, Athlone Town has undoubtedly experienced some urban decline but I am delighted to see that this new development is part of a major reversal of that trend. I know that Athlone Town Council has been deeply committed to the regeneration of this town and has led by example through the development of their award-winning civic offices. ‘There has been significant population growth in this region and it is fair to say that in the last number of years, Athlone has come to be regarded as the commercial and retail capital of the Irish Midlands. This reputation can only be enhanced with the addition of this new Town centre with its 300,000 square feet of retail space. ‘And it is great news that Marks & Spencer are going to be the anchor tenant here with their first store in the midlands. In addition to the retail outlets, the town centre will also include an international four star 160 bedroom hotel with a spa and leisure centre and a 1,400 space car park. The new hotel and facilities will add greatly to Athlone’s reputation as a leisure and tourist destination. Indeed, with its beautiful situation on the Shannon at the foot of Lough Ree, and with access to a wide range of amenities and historical attractions, this town already has many natural advantages as a tourist attraction. There is great potential to further develop the tourist industry in this region and the €800 million that is now going to be spent to market the midlands and Ireland under the NDP will be of major benefit. Concluding, the Taoiseach paid tribute to developers Gallico, architects Murray O’Laoire, and the visionaries behind the project John O’Sullivan, Jim Keane and Tom Donohue. Also on Thursday, the Taoiseach laid a foundation stone for phase one of Flancare Business Park. The new park will be built over two phases and upon completion in 2009, will see the creation of almost 100 jobs.