Industry to innovation

Once one of Belfast’s largest employers, the site of the James Mackie & Sons textile machinery engineering plant and foundry, has been redeveloped to create up to 400 new jobs.

In some ways, the current journey of Mackie’s site in west Belfast is representative of a journey undertaken by the overall Northern Ireland economy. Once an employer of over 7,000 people as Northern Ireland’s formerly renowned manufacturing industry began to decline, so do did the 160-year-old engineering business.

Previous pragmatism demonstrated by the company, such as its switch to making shell casings for the military during WWI, was not enough to ward off economic change, when just like many of the other mainstays of Northern Ireland’s past economy, outside influences such as the emergence of man-made fibres and financial unrest in markets such as America and Asia placed the business into rapid decline.

However, as a recognition to combat the declining sectors of the Northern Ireland economy has been met with the awareness for a need to grow into new areas, the investment of over £9 million to develop the Innovation Factory on part of the Mackie’s site is representative of this change.

In the years leading up to its closure the factory required up to £30 million in financial assistance from the Government but now the potential for part of the land has been realised in the shape of a hub for start-up businesses and expanding firms specialising in innovation, research and development, and other creative solutions.


Innovation Director Majella Barkley with Lord Mayor Nula McAlister and members of the Mackie family

The new 3,300 square metre business centre, off Springfield Road, was officially opened in September following the completion of construction works part-funded by Invest Northern Ireland (£2.1 million) and the European Regional Development Fund, under the Sustainable Competitiveness Programme for Northern Ireland (£4.15 million).

Designed by international designer Wayne Hemingway, the Grade A standard accommodation will house over 100 businesses and entrepreneurs at full capacity.

The council investment, estimated just below £3 million, will be a welcome boost for the west Belfast area, which has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the whole of Northern Ireland.

Recently, the latest addition to Northern Ireland’s digital economy invited back old factory workers for an open day and historical exhibition, recognising the transition the legacy and transition of the site.

Speaking on the day, Shane Smith, Innovation Factory Community Engagement Officer said: “Thousands of local people spent their working lives at this location. We wanted to let them see how this site has been transformed into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Former Mackie employee and local historian Bobby Foster added: “There’s always been a great camaraderie among the Mackie crew and this has been a really unique chance for us to come together and see how the site where we worked for so many years has been changed into this hi-tech building. Manufacturing had been the cornerstone of industry in Northern Ireland for so long and it’s exciting to see this new generation of digital entrepreneurs coming along.”

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