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Sunday 23 July 2017

Champagne stopped flowing as developer's luck ran dry

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

STEPHEN Harris started off as a bicycle salesman -- and ended up as one of Galway's biggest property developers.

His father was the owner of a corner shop called "Ben's Stores" in Bohermore in Galway city and he followed him into business by setting up "Harry's Cycle Shop" in the area.

Though he was hit with a judgment for about IR£10,000 by the Irish Farm and Garden Machinery company in 1993, he satisfied the debt in 2001.

Mr Harris's transformation into one of the biggest property developers in the city caused amazement.

He bought a stud farm, spent millions on racehorses and bought pubs around Galway. At the height of the property boom in 2006, he spent €30,000 in a charity auction on a Waterford Crystal sculpture of Pegasus, the winged horse of ancient Greece.

And the following year he bought a one-bedroom apartment close to Rockefeller Plaza in New York for $875,000 (€609,000).

He joined forces with Achill builder Joe McNamara to form Harrmack Developments in 2002 and the company went on to build about 300 homes in the Galway area.

It built apartments in Doughiska, a sparsely populated area which turned into a new suburb of Galway city.

But Mr McNamara left to pursue his own building projects and the company's most recent accounts show that Mr McNamara's share in the company was transferred to Mr Harris's wife Marie in 2006.

Mr Harris acquired an enormous house in Stradbally, near Clarinbridge, Co Galway. He got loans from banks such as Anglo Irish Bank, Ulster Bank, Bank of Ireland and Bank of Scotland (Ireland).

He became known for hanging around in the company of other property developers in Galway in a tiny pub off Eyre Square.

O'Connell's became famous after it was sold for €14m to four Galway property developers -- Michael Burke, Peter Gilhooly, Walter King and Tom Considine -- in 2006. The widowed owner of the pub, Maureen O'Connell, had left it to the St Vincent de Paul years earlier, but the charity eventually got €7m of the proceeds after a long legal battle.

It was the perfect location for property developers to celebrate their deals because it was close to the offices of auctioneers and solicitors in Eyre Square.

The scenes in O'Connell's on Friday nights became legendary as developers celebrated their latest deals with champagne.

Mr Harris was involved in some of the biggest property deals in the west of Ireland.

Tradition

He joined a consortium that spent €18m on a site outside Ennis in 2006. The plan was to develop it into a major out-of-town retail centre accessible from the new Ennis bypass.

The seller, an elderly Clare farmer called JJ McCabe, gave the purchasers a 'luck penny' of €50,000 in the 48-acre deal -- a tradition usually associated with selling cows or sheep.

But Mr Harris and his fellow investors had precious little luck.

A rare and protected butterfly species was discovered on the site, which led to planning objections, but an expert employed by Mr Harris found two years later that the butterfly had disappeared due to heavy grazing and flooding.

But even if Mr Harris and his fellow investors thought their luck had turned, they still failed to secure planning permission for their €50m retail park due to flooding and nothing has been built on the site.

Mr Harris was also part of a consortium attempting to turn a former factory site into the biggest retail development in Galway city -- the €450m Crown Plaza project in Mervue, which received planning permission in late 2006.

But the developers were hit by an unforeseen cost -- the soil in the site was polluted and they spent vast sums excavating it for treatment before the property crash hit. One Galway politician said the Mervue site was now a "hole in the ground".

Mr Harris worked on several projects with Bernard McKeon, a senior planner in Galway City Council who had had left his council job before getting involved in property development. But Bank of Ireland secured judgments of €2.89m against Mr Harris and €1.45m against Mr McKeon in 2009.

One judgement related to a joint loan for 14 apartments in Tubbercurry in Sligo, while the other related to a personal loan given to Mr Harris.

It is a long way since the glory days in O'Connell's pub -- which itself has felt the effects of the property bust.

It was bought by the property developers in 2006 using a loan from Bank of Scotland (Ireland), but the bank has taken it over and is leasing out the pub to new management.

Irish Independent

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