Drinks giant Diageo has said turning a former department store on Princes Street into “one of the world’s great whisky attractions” will create up to 180 jobs and generate £135 million a year for Edinburgh’s economy.

The former House of Fraser department store at the west end of the thoroughfare will be turned into a seven-storey Johnnie Walker complex complete with roof-top bars boasting views of the city’s skyline.

Diageo said that the development will create a “powerful strategic opportunity” for the city centre, which is expected to undergo radical change when the new St James retail and leisure complex, at the other end of Princes Street, is completed in 2021.

The whisky firm also hopes its transformation of the west end site will also help “balance visitor footfall across the city”.

“We believe our plans will create a flagship attraction  that will bring people  to Scotland from the four corners of  the world” –  Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo

Plans for the site have been lodged with the city council by Diageo and developer

Parabola following widespread concern about “over-tourism” affecting parts of the Old Town in particular.

Music, theatre and other arts events will be staged in a flexible venue Diageo claims will become “part of the thriving cultural life of the city”.

Three floors will be devoted to a “multi-sensory visitor experience” charting two centuries of the whisky brand’s heritage going back to its origins in Kilmarnock,

Ayrshire, while a ground-floor shop will continue the retailing heritage at the site, which dates to 1894.

Other key features include a bar academy where unemployed people will be trained for roles in the drinks industry, and classes will be run in the “responsible serving and consumption of alcohol”.

The building’s iconic clock, which dates back to 1931 when the Binns department store opened, will be restored in recognition of the building’s long heritage as a meeting point on Princes Street.

Cristina Diezhandino, global Scotch whisky director at Diageo, said: “Johnnie Walker is the leading international whisky brand, with truly global reach and we believe our plans will create a flagship attraction that will bring people to Scotland from the four corners of the world.

“Our ambition is to create a visitor experience that will rank not only as one of the greatest whisky attractions of the world, but one of the greatest brand attractions in any industry, putting Scotland at the forefront of the global boom in experiential travel.”

Speculation about a dramatic change for the site was sparked a year ago when it emerged that Parabola had snapped up to the building following a fierce bidding war, with the selling price said to be “significantly in excess” of its £13.7 million price tag.

It emerged in June that the troubled retail chain had earmarked the west end site for closure and the last customers were served in November.

Parabola managing director Tony Hordon said: “We feel like the custodians of a beautiful piece of Edinburgh real estate and we’ve taken great care to consider its future.

“With Diageo and their vision, we believe we have a use which will not only protect the building for many years to come, but it also celebrates the building … and its heritage.”

City council leader Adam McVey said: “Edinburgh is the gateway to Scotland and this exciting venture, situated in a landmark building, would also attract a large number of visitors who travel on to visit many other distilleries throughout Scotland.

“This iconic building being reoccupied so quickly is further evidence of the city’s continued economic strength. It would offer great diversity to Princes Street and the city.”

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Brian Ferguson

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