Plan to transform the face of Tralee yet to materialise
There were ambitious plans for the Austin Stack Park and John Mitchels GAA sites in Tralee five years ago, but nothing has come of them since. Simon Brouder reports
WHEN it was first mooted, the plan to transform Tralee's Austin Stack Park into a massive shopping centre and apartment complex was the largest development project ever announced in Kerry.
The multi-million euro plan had the potential to transform Kerry's county capital and brought together some of Munster's most successful businessmen and developers with the Kerry GAA.
Controversial from the very beginning the project did not have an easy time of it when it came to securing planning permission and by the time it was ready to get underway the bottom had fallen out of the Irish property market.
The entire plan was hugely ambitious and massive in its scope spreading far out of Tralee Town Centre and even reaching into south Kerry.
At the core of the project was a plan to replace Austin Stack Park and the neighbouring John Mitchel's GAA ground with a multi-million euro shopping complex with an adjoining office and apartment complex and a huge underground car park.
The Kerry County Board would be moved to a new stadium and headquarters on the site of Ballybeggan Racecourse. The racecourse site would also have been used to construct a second retail park and a large scale housing development incorporating up to 300 houses.
In exchange for Austin Stack Park the GAA were not to be paid but would have received the brand new stadium and headquarters in a free turnkey exchange.
This deal was sweetened by plans to develop a new training facility for the Kerry GAA in Currans, another aspect of the overall plan, which ran into planning difficulties of its own.
For their part John Mitchels GAA Club in Tralee agreed to sell their lands and move their pitch and club lock stock and barrel to a new purpose built site, to be built by the club itself, in Skehanagh on the outskirts of Tralee.
In addition to the work which would have taken place at Austin Stack Park, Ballybeggan, Skehanagh and Currans the entire project would have entailed a complete re working of Tralee's traffic network and the construction of several new junctions and roundabouts.
The project, even in the building phase, would of course have been massive boon for Tralee.
The construction phase of the new GAA stadium would have created around 400 jobs while the building of the retail centre at Austin Stack Park would likely have created a further 500 direct building jobs.
An additional 300 people would have been needed to fit out the shopping centre.
The whole scheme was expected to take around four years from start to finish and the retail centre was expected to employ 1,500 people directly with another 750 spin off jobs created.
Understandably, for a project of such magnitude, and regardless of its potential economic benefits, it ran into significant opposition from the beginning.
Town centre traders, other shopping centre operators and residents in and around John Joe Sheehy Road, Ballybeggan and Currans all raised objections.
From the project's initial announcement, to the time the full plan had received planning permission, following several appeals and an oral hearing by Bord Pleanala, four and half years had passed and the economic situation in Ireland was radically different.
While the developers pledged that they did intend to go ahead with the project when planning permission was finally granted in February 2009, unfortunately it wasn't to be.
Now, three years on, the plan has basically come asunder.
The GAA have effectively abandoned the plan to hand over Austin Stack Park and the belief in the organisation is that the full project will likely never happen.
The GAA is pressing ahead with the plan for a training facility in Currans though this will now be a solo venture and is not linked to the Austin Stack Park scheme.
While there were indications that the a smaller shopping development would go ahead on the site of John Mitchels GAA club these too appeared to have stalled.
John Mitchel's development of a new pitch and clubhouse in Skehanagh has been beset by delays.
Tesco the proposed anchor tenants for the smaller shopping centre appear to have abandoned plans to locate there having only last week agreed a new 10 year lease on their existing store in Tralee town centre.
The developers behind the project Seamus O'halloran and John J Casey have indicated that they intend submitting a new planning application for a small retail park at the John Mitchel's ground in the near future.
However they have previously said they have shelved the Austin Stack Park and Ballybeggan aspects of the plan which, they say, may eventually be completed if the economy should recover sufficiently.
The developers do not own Ballybeggan Park, however they retain an option to buy the racetrack for €40 million until September 2012 following a €1 million deal with the track's shareholders in September 2007.