Coveney warns against turning Cork's long-delayed €80m events centre into 'political football'
TANAISTE Simon Coveney bluntly warned against turning Cork's long-delayed €80m events centre into "a political football."
His warning came after an RTE PrimeTime special on the ambitious 6,000 seat events centre which aims to offer Cork a rival to Dublin's 3Arena and Belfast's Odyssey complex.
Mr Coveney said he understood the frustrations people had with the repeated delays over the project - but he warned the venture was now reaching a critical stage.
"What I would appeal to people here is, let’s not turn this into a political football that becomes hugely negative and then, because of that negative cycle, we make finalising the arrangements for this project even more difficult."
"What we need now is some cool heads for the next couple of weeks to try and get the legals of this project clarified once and for all so we can move ahead with it."
Last month, four major Cork business groups demanded clarity on the long-stalled €80m events centre and warned repeated delays over the project were now impeding the growth of Ireland's second city.
The Cork Events Centre (CEC) - being developed by BAM, the firm at the centre of the National Children's Hospital project in Dublin - had its sod-turning at the height of the 2016 General Election campaign.
However, it has been mired in embarrassing delays over support funding and operating costs since then.
By its original schedule, the events centre should be operational by now - but major construction work has not even commenced on the complex.
However, student accommodation blocks included as part of the original project design are now virtually complete.
"I understand the frustrations and concerns – I have been part of this for four years now and the easy thing to do when there are blockages and frustrations is to abandon the project," Mr Coveney said.
"BAM are still absolutely committed to it, Live Nation are still committed to it, Cork City Council are committed to it and the government is committed to it across multiple departments."
"Civil servants are understandably cautious that decisions are made in the appropriate way if we are going to be contributing €30m of public money into a project so that has been very frustrating - I fully recognise that."
"This week I was speaking to the Taoiseach's Department in relation to the event centre - I have explained to people that we are trying to find a legal way forward that is agreed between the Attorney-General’s office and the legal advice that is available to Cork City Council that has frustrated the process. It has taken time but I want to reassure people that the government is absolutely committed to this project. We have been saying that for a long time now. You know the goalposts have changed and we have had to adapt to that."
BAM and its original partner, Heineken, won the right to develop the events centre at the historic former Beamish & Crawford site in 2014 over a rival bid by the late Owen O'Callaghan.
It was hoped the events centre would kick-start the redevelopment of Cork's most historic quarter.
In February 2018, Mr Coveney said he hoped revised funding arrangements could allow construction work to commence in September/October 2018.
Four major business groups - Cork Business Association (CBA), Irish Hotels Federation Cork (IHF), Vintners Federation Cork (VFI) and Restaurant Association Cork (RAI) - issued an unprecedented statement over the CEC delays.
They called for "certainty, accountability and meaningful communication" on the events centre.
"It is imperative for future planning and sustainability in Cork that the development of the 6,000 capacity multi-purpose venue begins immediately," a joint statement warned.
“The process has dragged out and at this stage the Government needs to deliver on this project, by resolving all interdepartmental issues and ensuring that the Developer BAM and operator Live Nation also deliver on their end.”
All four also warned that investment in Cork was now being put on hold because of the delays over the CEC.
Project costs have soared from an original €53m to almost €80m.
Taxpayer support for the CEC has increased by 50pc from €20m to €30m.
“A dedicated events centre, that would bring Cork’s conferencing and events capacity from 1,000 to 6,000 seats, would be a game changer for the wider Cork region in terms of social and economic benefits,” the joint business statement added.
Mr Coveney insisted last year the delay on the project since then. Taoiseach Enda Kenny turned the sod in 2016 was necessary to ensure the complex is viable and capable of adapting to every possible entertainment and convention booking.
The CEC is aimed at giving Cork a complex to rival facilities in Dublin and Belfast and increase its share of the money-spinning conference and concert market.
Its high-tech electronic deployed seating will also offer the complex the greatest flexibility of any events centre in Ireland or the UK.
"This is absolutely vital to ensure the future viability of the centre," Mr Coveney said.
"LiveNation were very clear about this - they were not going to push ahead until they had all their costings and the operational analysis of the centre completed."
Mr Coveney said that many such entertainment centres have cost overruns during construction - the difference with the Cork centre was it was so carefully assessed its revised costings were all front-loaded.
The Government originally committed to back the project on the old Beamish & Crawford brewery site to the tune of €20m.
However, further cash was then required.
An outline deal was reached between the Government, BAM and Live Nation though Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe later had to sign-off on the final costings for the State.
It was originally hoped that major CEC construction would begin in 2016 but nothing beyond demolition work and archaeological assessment work took place.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny turned the sod on the events centre in February 2016 during the general election campaign but no major construction work has taken place since.
BAM chief executive Theo Cullinane briefed Cork City Council 18 months ago on the project status amid growing disquiet over ongoing delays.
The archaeological assessment proved lengthy because the site involved ranks as one of the oldest parts of Cork city centre with brewing activity dating back to medieval times.
The South Main Street site is also adjacent to the former city walls and a former fort-prison from which executed prisoner’s heads were displayed in the 17th Century.
Live Nation will operate the 6,000 seat venue which will be able to handle major international conferences as well as sporting, music and trade events.