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Bangladesh developer gambles shopping mall

DHAKA, Sept 15 – On the edge of the Bangladeshi capital’s diplomatic zone and surrounding upmarket suburbs, the grey giant box-shaped Jamuna Future Park shopping mall is difficult to miss.

Sitting on a vast 134,000 square-metre (33-acre) plot of land, the mall will be the biggest in South Asia, according to its developers, who plan to open it next year.

The wealthy entrepreneur constructing the 500 million-dollar mall hopes it will transform impoverished Bangladesh into a retail hub for the region.

"We have 150 million people here and five percent of people have a higher per capita income than the USA. That’s 7.5 million people. That’s who this mall is for," said Nurul Islam, chairman of Jamuna Group, the company building it.

Islam is hoping to attract some of the world’s biggest retailing names to help fill the 409,000 square metres (44 million square feet) of space inside the building which has three levels below ground and six above.

"We hope a lot of international tourists will also come here," he said, adding that he was undeterred by the global economic downturn.

Jamuna is one of Bangladesh’s biggest companies, with most of its interests in clothing, engineering and media, including a leading Bengali daily newspaper. It plans to open the country’s first 24-hour news channel later this year.

The mall has room for 2,000 shops, seven movie theatres, 5,000 car parking spaces, two swimming pools, a 3,000-seat food court, a 2,000-person gymnasium, as well as amusement parks.

On average, it will be filled with 65,000 people each day, Islam hopes, with one third of those employees of the mall and shops.

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But Latiful Hossain, chief executive of the Basundhara City shopping mall on the other side of town, has doubts about whether Dhaka can cope with another mega retail centre.

He said around 20 percent of shops in his mall, which opened in 2004 and is around one-sixth the size of the Jamuna Future Park, had been empty since it was built.

"My experience is that although there are rich people in Dhaka, there are not enough for such a huge super mall," he said. "We should have waited for at least five years before opening our own mall."

Although the mall will have its own 45-megawatt power plant on site, because electricity in Bangladesh is scarce and power outages frequent, a leading business expert also said he was sceptical about whether Dhaka’s already-struggling infrastructure will cope with the mega mall.

"In order to be a success, it would need to attract a huge number of people every day but the roads around the park are already clogged," said Syed Farhet Anwar, a professor of business administration at Dhaka University.

"It may even cause natural deaths of smaller malls. I doubt whether the mega-mall would bring much good to our economy," he said.

But investment banker Ifty Islam, who heads the Dhaka-based A.T. Capital investment fund, was more optimistic despite the fact that 40 percent of people in Bangladesh live below the poverty line.

Bangladesh, which has experienced more than six percent economic growth a year in the past five years, has not been badly hit by the global credit crunch so far because its banks are not exposed to worldwide markets.

Although exports are beginning to show signs of a slowdown, growth is forecast for a healthy 5.5 percent in the next financial year.

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"It will give Bangladesh’s fast-growing middle class — who travel to places like Thailand at the moment for shopping — a different retail experience," said Islam. "It shows how fast the Bangladeshi economy is growing."

His sentiment is echoed by the Jamuna chairman’s daughter Rozalin, 24, a company director, who says she is confident top designer labels will want to set up shop in Bangladesh.

"It’s going to be the most happening place in Bangladesh."

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