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Tuesday 22 October 2019

How Páirc Uí Chaoimh turned into the GAA's field of nightmares

A huge cost overrun and unacceptable playing pitch is threatening to turn the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh into a massive white elephant, writes Shane Phelan

Last of the action: Cork and Kildare in Allianz League action at Páirc Uí Chaoimh earlier this month. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Last of the action: Cork and Kildare in Allianz League action at Páirc Uí Chaoimh earlier this month. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
The state of the pitch after the game. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Past: Former county board secretary Frank Murphy
Present: Tracey Kennedy, the current chairperson
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

When the fixture list threw up this evening's mouth-watering Allianz Hurling League clash between Cork and Clare, it seemed a perfect opportunity to showcase Páirc Uí Chaoimh under lights. Such is the appeal of the match-up of the Munster rivals, both RTÉ and Eir Sport quickly pencilled it in for live television coverage.

Doubtless many on Leeside had been hoping the match would provide a welcome distraction from the ongoing controversy surrounding the cost of the redeveloped stadium.

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Although completed in 2017, controversy over the final bill for the stadium ignited last December when a senior GAA official suggested it could end up costing €110m, a significant increase on the €70m announced when the project got under way.

This week the cost estimate was revised down to €95.8m, some €30m of which has come from the public purse.

The state of the pitch after the game. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
The state of the pitch after the game. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Nevertheless, the overrun has prompted the GAA to effectively bail out the stadium project.

The sight of Croke Park administrators arriving in Cork to assist in the running of the stadium will have been a difficult pill to swallow for a county used to looking after its own affairs.

But as so often happens in a crisis, other events have conspired to make things even worse and right now Páirc Uí Chaoimh looks more like a field of nightmares than a field of dreams.

Instead of bringing their cameras to the glistening 45,000-capacity stadium this evening, broadcasters will be two kilometres down the road at the rather more down-at-heel Páirc Uí Rinn. The reason for the switch is that during a football and hurling league double-header on February 3, Páirc Uí Chaoimh's pitch cut up badly. So badly, in fact, that player safety became a cause of concern.

The issue is not an easy fix and the pitch may have to be relaid at considerable expense.

The winter weather and heavy pitch-side traffic from construction works were blamed, and the Cork County Board has given assurances that as the weather gets better and grass roots develop, playability will improve dramatically.

Past: Former county board secretary Frank Murphy
Past: Former county board secretary Frank Murphy

Earlier this week, the county board told delegates it was likely the remainder of the county's home hurling and football league games would have to be played at Páirc Uí Rinn. As things stand, it could be May and the beginning of the Munster hurling championship before Páirc Uí Chaoimh sees action again.

The move to a less attractive venue will undoubtedly result in a drop in gate receipts. Páirc Uí Rinn has a third of the capacity and few of the facilities of its larger neighbour.

Some 700 premium ticket holders have been told they will be accommodated during the venue switch, but this is hardly what they expected when they forked out €6,500 for ten-year packages that include access to the best seats in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, four bars and a 400-seat restaurant.

Sandwiched in the middle of these twin controversies was a High Court action against the county board, later settled, which brought even more unwanted headlines.

To add to the gloom, Cork's senior hurlers are winless after their opening two league encounters, while their senior footballers are in the doldrums, rooted to the bottom of Division 2.

Of most pressing concern, however, is the cost of the redevelopment and the implications for the wider GAA community.

Present: Tracey Kennedy, the current chairperson
Present: Tracey Kennedy, the current chairperson

Assurances have been given by the GAA that funding for clubs and projects in Cork and elsewhere will not be affected, but not everyone is convinced, and the money to clear the debt will have to be found somewhere.

Few would have questioned the need to redevelop the old stadium, which was notorious for its cramped seating and chaotic tunnels.

But the wisdom of building such a large and expensive replacement that will seldom see a sell-out crowd for sporting fixtures was always in doubt. The fear now is that the GAA has been saddled with a white elephant that will take many years to pay for.

When Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna said last December the final cost could hit €110m, he intimated it could take 10 to 15 years to pay off the additional debt.

The size of the overrun was disputed, with county board chairperson Tracey Kennedy insisting the cost of redeveloping the stadium stood at €86m.

It now appears the final cost will end up being somewhere in between those two figures.

Following the furore caused by McKenna's estimates last December, two members of the board of Staid Cois Laoi, the company set up to run Páirc Uí Chaoimh, were tasked with examining the figures and clarifying costs.

Cork-based developer Michael O'Flynn and Dublin chartered accountant Tom Gray reported back to the board on Wednesday that the estimated cost of the redevelopment would be €95.8m. Even though the figure is less than once feared, there is still quite a degree of shock among the GAA public and many people have questions.

"Obviously, we are disappointed it is that high," says Ted Owens, chairman of Cáirde Chorcaí, an independent group which is fundraising to support games and coaching initiatives in Cork.

"I am quite certain that the clubs in Cork and the county board delegates will be seeking explanations as to why the figure is that high." Cáirde Chorcaí is a separate entity from the county board and Owens says none of the funds it is raising would be used to pay off the debts on the stadium.

Coincidentally, it is the second time the construction of a stadium on the old Cork Athletic Grounds has run substantially over budget.

The original Páirc Uí Chaoimh, built between 1974 and 1976, was supposed to cost £1m, but ended up overrunning to £1.7m.

Its redevelopment between 2014 and 2017 was overseen by a steering group comprised of then county board chairman Ger Lane, then secretary Frank Murphy, then treasurer Pearse Murphy, former GAA president Christy Cooney and former county board chairman Bob Ryan.

Three of the five, Ger Lane, Frank Murphy and Pearse Murphy, are still involved with the stadium as members of the Staid Cois Laoi board.

Additional costs

Ryan, a Fianna Fáil county councillor, chaired the stadium steering group during the construction. As the project developed, he also became stadium operations manager, a role he stepped down from last July.

Contacted by Review this week, he says he was unaware how the €95.8m figure reported by O'Flynn and Gray was arrived at.

"I don't known the detail or make up of that figure. It would be unwise of me to comment on it until I do," he says.

The GAA was asked by Review if it could provide a breakdown of the redevelopment costs, but this information was not forthcoming.

A statement issued by the GAA outlining the €95.8m costs estimate says the board of Staid Cois Laoi would be making no further comment.

GAA director general Tom Ryan has taken a stab at identifying in general terms where additional costs may have crept in. In his annual report, he said the intention was to complete the new stadium without debt but, in hindsight, it could be argued the financial projections were "too tight" and "overly ambitious".

There were variations in specification and complications encountered during construction, he said, and "one or two high value elements" which were the subject of ongoing negotiation.

Neither the GAA nor the county board have clarified what these elements are, but a number of sources have said at least one relates to the final costs to be paid for floodlighting and electrical arrangements. It is also understood that the possibility of a substantial tax rebate has been under examination in a bid to offset costs.

Further clues regarding difficulties the project encountered can be gleaned from emails and other documents obtained by Review under freedom of information rules. These indicate there were problems around the drawing down of public funds at the start of the project.

In the midst of the local and European election campaign in 2014, the Cabinet decided the Government would put funding of €30m towards the redevelopment.

Although it could have been seen as a politically opportunistic decision, few raised concerns about it at the time, particularly as the stadium would form part of Ireland's ultimately doomed bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

The remaining €40m was to come from GAA coffers, including €20m from the GAA centrally, €10m from county board funds and €3.75m from the Munster Council.

But efforts to draw down the Government cash hit a snag when Department of Public Expenditure and Reform officials expressed concern that a cost-benefit analysis prepared by the county board was not up to scratch. As a result, an initial €10m tranche of public money was withheld for a period.

A key concern was that projected attendances for non-sporting events, such as concerts, may have been "overly optimistic".

One department official remarked in an email that information provided "could not be classified" as a cost-benefit analysis as it did not present an adequate analysis of potential costs and benefits over the lifetime of the stadium.

There were also concerns that no information was provided on certain ongoing costs, such as the maintenance of the stadium.

A further email between officials claimed then county board secretary Frank Murphy was "mystified" as to how the cost-benefit analysis could be required when a Government decision to allocate the grant has already been made and material had already been provided by the county board.

Asked about this email in 2015, the county board said its clear position was that any case for the expenditure of public monies had to be fully documented and that the board and Murphy had undertaken considerable work in providing information that had been required and requested. It rejected any suggestion to the contrary.

External management consultants and a sports economist were drafted in to help satisfy the department's requests for information, while EY also compiled an addendum to the cost-benefit analysis.

'Proud county'

Eventually, the Government funding was forthcoming, but it is understood the hold-up did cause some difficulty as central GAA and county board funding had to be drawn down sooner than anticipated to keep things on track.

According to sources familiar with the project, building costs increased in late 2014 and early 2015 and the centre of excellence adjacent to stadium also required more work than initially anticipated, adding to the projected costs.

Documents filed in court as part of a recent legal action against the county board also suggest problems continued long after construction was completed. The case was brought by Diarmuid O'Donovan, a senior administrator who secured a temporary High Court injunction preventing the county board from making him redundant. The case was ultimately settled and O'Donovan has left his position.

He was not involved in the construction project, but was taken on by the county board in 2013 so that Frank Murphy could concentrate his efforts on the stadium.

Murphy had been due to retire at the end of 2017, following completion of the redevelopment. But in an affidavit, O'Donovan said Murphy's contract was extended until December 2018 to "settle various contract disputes".

Looking to the future, the commercial experience Croke Park can bring to Páirc Uí Chaoimh should assist efforts to ease the debt. Cáirde Chorcaí's Ted Owens certainly thinks so.

"We are a proud county. One would have expected we would have been able to do our own business. But at least we do have that support net and we are confident that things will eventually come good," he says.

One major issue to be faced is that there are only so many big GAA fixtures the ground can hold each year. At present, it is only guaranteed two Munster senior hurling championship fixtures this summer and one Munster senior football championship game, with a second football match if both Cork and Kerry reach the final.

Concerts could also be a lucrative source of revenue, as seen from Ed Sheeran's three sold-out gigs there last May. But ultimately if Páirc Uí Chaoimh is to pay its way any time soon, the GAA may have to consider relaxing its rules to allow other sports use the ground.

The amount of public money spent on the stadium only strengthens the argument for opening it up.

The staging of the Liam Miller tribute soccer game last year was a huge success after the GAA belatedly sanctioned the event.

Given the current financial predicament, it would make eminent good sense to offer the ground to Munster Rugby for big matches where demand for tickets outstrips the 25,000 capacity of Limerick's Thomond Park.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh in numbers

€70m

Initial estimate of the redevelopment cost

€95.8m

Latest estimate of the redevelopment cost

€30m

Government contribution to the project

€6,500

Cost of 10-year premium access to the stadium

£1.7m

The final cost of the 1976 construction of the stadium,  some £700,000 over budget

45,000

Capacity of Páirc Uí Chaoimh since its 2017 revamp.

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