A SINGAPOREAN real estate billionaire who once stayed at the suburban Claremont Hotel during a bed shortage in Hobart could dominate the city’s skyline within five years.
James Koh, the quietly spoken tycoon behind the Fragrance Group, views Hobart as a developer’s gold mine and has already snapped up six prime city sites for hotel developments.
Heated public debate has raged for months over Mr Koh’s proposals for 210m and 94m-high Fragrance Group hotel towers in Davey and Collins streets in Hobart, and we’ve all fallen hook, line and sinker for what are clearly provocative building applications to test the boundaries.
With local heat swirling and intensifying, this smooth, quiet operator has quietly sidestepped the kerfuffle and moved swiftly behind the scenes to buy out the development company building the 63m-high Hyatt Centric Hotel on the old Westpac site in the bus mall.
Mr Koh recently purchased the developer Elizabeth Tasmania P/L from a Singaporean colleague and will start building the Hyatt next year, once the bus mall is relocated into surrounding streets and the former Westpac offices demolished.
So who is James Koh, the man who may change the face of Hobart forever?
Who is this man who saw a beautiful but sleepy harbour city as a developer’s dream years ago and has since shaken up city planners, challenged building heights, aggravated local developers, pushed up land values and set the cat among the pigeons as we hurriedly try to define what the future Hobart should look like.
Some say he caught Hobart authorities “napping” on development guidelines to the point of embarrassment.
Koh Wee Meng, or James Koh, 54, is worth an estimated $2 billion plus.
He moved out of his family’s Singapore jewellery business in his late 20s and jumped into property development during Singapore’s boom in the early 1990s.
Mr Koh has since completed more than 100 projects in Singapore, and as opportunities tightened up on the land-scarce island, he ventured further afield, purchasing hotel properties and development sites around the globe.
He owns a substantial group of hotels in cities around the UK, but sees huge opportunity in Australia. He believes it is safe and welcoming — and has spent something like $200 million acquiring property since 2014.
He says the infrastructure is in place, security is good, and it has political stability. (We can argue the toss on that aspect). He believes people can work and walk around safely.
Fragrance Group has major inner city projects under way in Melbourne and Perth.
Does this ambitious plan in Melbourne have a familiar ring to it?
Fragrance submitted a bold application for a 90-storey, 300m-high building with 1000 small apartments on a Melbourne development site in Spencer St, but was forced to downscale to 68 storeys, 660 apartments and 160 hotel rooms.
Given the size and scale of his global empire and other projects on the go, Hobart is small beer. It is nothing like the main game for James Koh — more like a fringe activity.
However, Mr Koh has taken a particular shine to Tasmania during visits, which started around 25 years ago.
Friends say he particularly loves Hobart’s special vibe and potential, the fresh air and water, the heritage buildings, the wineries and vineyards.
Hobart and Tasmania have, over the years, dreamed, sent trade missions far afield and wooed cashed-up companies to embrace the state’s potential and invest.
Now here it is, perhaps in a slightly more confrontational way than envisaged!
So here’s the known Fragrance portfolio in Hobart.
It owns the new, 11-storey ibis Styles Hotel (296 rooms) in Macquarie St, which opened recently.
It has now got the Hyatt Centric Hobart soon under way in the bus mall, and has the application for a 210m-high hotel in Davey St (457 rooms) and the 94m-high hotel in Collins St (495 rooms), both of which are clearly testing the boundaries.
Add to that purchases of 234-250 Elizabeth St, a site with huge potential, and the former Conservatorium of Music site, and surrounding titles, in Sandy Bay Rd opposite St David’s Park. Another cracker of a hotel site.
Mr Koh also owns two Tasmanian islands.
He purchased the 287ha Waterhouse Island, 30km off Bridport in North-East Tasmania, last year and plans an eco-tourism venture.
He also purchased Fulham Island off Dunalley last year for a tourism retreat, and soon ran into opposition from local bird lovers over plans to build a large jetty and boat ramp.
Few people in Hobart have met James Koh. Those that have are key to his ambitions.
He seems a private, humble family man, with some hobbies outside real estate and property development. He is totally driven, focused and businesslike in his dealings. He is fastidious with the fitout of his buildings, using quality to avoid maintenance.
Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey said: “I’ve met him on several occasions and he is very unassuming. He is not flashy in any way. He could walk in just wearing a jumper. I wouldn’t take him as a tycoon. He did seem very humble and a very pleasant man.”
The City of Hobart has told Fragrance that its current ambit claims “won’t cut it” and Mr Koh will need to severely modify the two controversial hotel projects in Davey and Collins streets.
Given he is a cash buyer who hasn’t asked for a cent of government money for projects, Mr Koh and Fragrance operate in a different world to local developers. Local developers apparently have their noses well out of joint as an outsider with deep pockets has ridden into town and is wiping the floor, mopping up opportunity.
The danger is that Mr Koh finds Hobart heavy going and just not worth the effort. If it all gets too hard “he may decide whether he wants to play here or not”, said one person who understands the billionaire’s plans.
“The potential tourism benefits from his plans are huge, so this all has to be very carefully handled by Tasmania.”
Rex Gardner is a former chief executive of the Mercury.