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Friday 15 December 2017

America here I come: Dunne eyes a new prize

Sean Dunne and his wife Gayle Killilea are looking forward to life with their family in Belle Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Derek Speirs
Sean Dunne and his wife Gayle Killilea are looking forward to life with their family in Belle Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Derek Speirs
Sean Dunne with a scaled-model of his Ballsbridge tower, a dream he has now given up on


SEAN Dunne should have been born in America. Given all that has happened to the economy here, it's probably fair to say that a lot of Irish people wished he had been.

Now his audacious dream to transform the drab seven acres occupied by the former Jury's hotel in the heart of Ballsbridge has come to an unfortunate end, the so-called 'Baron' is gearing up to be born again in a country where there may still be opportunity.

Sitting in the Corrib Suite at the D4 Berkeley Hotel yesterday, the man whose business and personal life proved to be the grist of the media's mill during the heady days of the boom showed no signs of being down or in any way out of what he and other developers fondly refer to as the "game".

With negotiations with the banks who lent him €379m to acquire the former Jury's Ballsbridge hotels "at an advanced stage" and with his exit strategy almost in place, the Carlow-born developer is on his way back today to his new home in the exclusive enclave of Belle Haven in Connecticut, USA, and to his wife Gayle Killilea and their three children, Bobby Luke, Harrison and Ryan Emmet.

No doubt, the image of Mr Dunne's domestic contentment is one that won't sit easily with many people here given the role they believe he played in the economic destruction of this country.

Nor will it do much to dampen down any of the ill-will from a certain coterie of Irish society, some of whom the couple customarily rubbed shoulders with at glitzy charity events during their reign as Ireland's king and queen of Celtic Tiger excess.

For all the pleasantries and air kisses they encountered, there was always a quiet, jealous few who maintained that the marriage between Gayle, a former gossip columnist, and Sean the property developer would only last as long as the money did. It has taken the global financial crisis to prove them wrong.

On the matter of his multimillion euro Ballsbridge property play, Dunne defends his boom-era decisions on the grounds that he paid millions in taxes to the Irish government in the good times, while investing and losing €125m of his own money on his vision of bringing a piece of Knightsbridge, London, to Ballsbridge.

While he fought for several years to secure planning permission for the seven-acre site in the face of strenuous objections from local residents, including financier Dermot Desmond, he realised three years ago that it was pretty much over when he told the New York Times that, if the banking crisis continued, he could be "considered insolvent".

For as much of an optimist that he was then and still is now, Dunne knew full well the numbers weren't going to stack up -- and yesterday he revealed just how much the arithmetic was against him with his frank admission to this newspaper of how he had given personal guarantees totalling €409m during the boom years.

But it's only money and life will go on, he believes, displaying an attitude that more of us might be advised to adopt given the crushing burden of national debt and personal debt that threatens to destroy what remains of our society.

All anyone can do is their best, he maintains, and it's what he did with the D4 hotels while he had them -- his best.

The Sunday Independent understands that Dunne reached an agreement with his banks in 2009 that, subject to the Ballsbridge hotel sites achieving a valuation of €200m by December 31, 2011, he would no longer have a share or 'carry' going forward, and that the personal guarantees he had given to secure his €379m borrowings would be erased.

In the event, the hotel sites only managed to secure valuations ranging from €45m to €70m at the end of 2011.

But he is proud of having met the banks' other target last summer of securing planning permission for the former Jury's lands, notwithstanding strong opposition from some local residents.

The redevelopment may proceed at some point in the future, albeit with a different developer seeing it through to fruition.

Sunday Independent

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