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Saturday 18 November 2017

Odds stacked against 'bog casino'

Planners have given the green light to a €460m 'super casino' but that's just the first obstacle, writes Jerome Reilly

HIGH STAKES: David Hickson, director of the Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland, believes plans for a €460m
'super casino' in Two-Mile Borris, Co Tipperary - which would be based on Las Vegas-style venues - are 'pie in the sky'. Photo: David Conachy
HIGH STAKES: David Hickson, director of the Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland, believes plans for a €460m 'super casino' in Two-Mile Borris, Co Tipperary - which would be based on Las Vegas-style venues - are 'pie in the sky'. Photo: David Conachy
Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

It's Thursday afternoon at the Fitzwilliam Club and it's quiet. The high and not-so high rollers will wait until the evening before they play poker, blackjack or roulette in the understated private members' club, which was once home to an order of enclosed nuns and where De Valera attended Mass.

But the roulette wheel is still being spun, despite the absence of gamblers in the flesh. Bets are being placed by a casino worker before the attractive blonde croupier deftly spins the wheel one way and flicks the small ball in the opposite direction round the cambered track running around the circumference of the wheel.

The notional game is being beamed via a live broadcast to an Isle of Man-registered company with computer servers in Guernsey. The live feed from Dublin is being watched by online roulette players all over the world who prefer to play the game based on the results of a live spin of a roulette wheel in Dublin rather than those from an electronic random number generator.

The ball loses momentum and drops into the wheel bouncing around the 37 slots until it finally rests. It's number 13. The pay-out for a winning online player is 35 times their stake. The odds against winning are 37 to 1.

David Hickson, who is an accountant by profession, is the manager of the Fitzwilliam Club, where the oldest regular poker player just celebrated his 80th birthday with a party at the venue.

Hickson watches as more chips are placed on the table.

"That shows the relationship that can exist between the land-based sector and the online sector. The online sector is moving steadily in that direction. They started by building their own studios and now they are trying to link up with real casinos. That's how things will move in the next two to five years," he says. Hickson is also director of the Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland, which represents private members' gaming clubs who provide casino-like services to their members all over Ireland, although the largest concentration is in Dublin and includes the Dermot Desmond-backed Sporting Emporium, just up the road at Anne's Lane.

Now Mr Hickson and the other operators are looking towards the tiny village of Two-Mile Borris, Co Tipperary -- located right at the edge of the Golden Vale and the Bog of Allen -- and the astonishing plan to build a Las Vegas-style casino, betting and leisure complex complete with horse and greyhound tracks and a chapel. The granting of planning permission for the project driven by former garda Richard Quirke, owner of the Dr Quirkey's arcade on Dublin's O'Connell Street, and championed by the controversial TD Michael Lowry, came as a surprise.

An Bord Pleanala overruled their own inspector Pauline Fitzpatrick who had pinpointed a number of fundamental planning flaws, not least that the proposal is in contravention of the National Spatial Strategy. Among the caveats Fitzpatrick noted is that Two-Mile Borris, with its population of 500 or so, lacks public transport links and access to the area requires an unsustainable car culture.

She said there is insufficient road infrastructure, the rural character of the area would be materially altered, and there is an "unknown yet high" possibility of archaeological remains on the site.

The majority of locals back the plan. It will mean 1,000 jobs during construction and another 2,000 when it is up and running. Gambling and hospitality are labour-intensive activities and it is understandable that local people see what is known as the 'Tipperary venue' as a golden ticket towards prosperity in an area which has lost many industries in recent years.

But Two-Mile Borris is also 155km from Dublin Airport, 115km from Cork Airport and 92km from Shannon. In terms of access for international air travellers and tourists, one of it main targets, it could hardly be further away from an international airport and still be on the island of Ireland.

But, whatever about the issue of planning, can the entire outlandish scheme, which includes a scaled-down version of the White House actually work?

Hickson has looked at it from every angle and can't see it being successful. His club runs about 10 poker tournaments a week, from a modest €10 buy-in on Sunday to a €75 buy-in on Monday -- a big night at the club. The minimum bet on one of the roulette tables is 50c. Fitzwilliam has about 200 to 300 visitors a day, roughly 2,000 a week but, like all the private clubs, there has been a decline since the downturn.

Nevertheless, the club paid the Exchequer €1.6m in taxes last year.

Hickson believes that for Two-Mile Borris to work it would need between 22,000 to 25,000 patrons per week -- every week. He thinks that hopes of attracting 1.3 million punters per annum is pie in the sky.

"Where will these customers stay? How will they get there and where will they come from?" he asks.

"You need a very large centre of population to support this type of venture and you also need a very large number of passing tourists.

"They are looking at putting a very large casino in London -- which has a population of eight million. They have had legislation in the UK for the last 55 years and they have 140 casinos across the UK and only now are they considering this type of massive development. We have a population of just four million across the country, widely dispersed.

"A resort-style casino is simply not sustainable on the demographics."

Quirke declined to be interviewed, though he did issue a short statement when planning permission was granted. "I welcome this decision by An Bord Pleanála to grant permission for the 'Tipperary venue' project which advances the implementation of my vision and ambition for this site," he said.

The ex-garda said he had instructed his design team and management to proceed to the next appropriate stage of the development. He has received support from Coolmore Stud, Horse Sport Ireland, Bord na gCon, Shannon Development and Thurles Chamber of Commerce.

The €460m 'Tipperary venue' will have a 500-bed hotel, a health spa and swimming pool, an equestrian centre and an 18-hole golf course as well as horse and greyhound racing. Leading horse trainer Aidan O'Brien is also a supporter, suggesting it could eventually host the United States' multimillion-dollar Breeders' Cup meeting.

The church will have an 18m-high steeple and the replica of the White House will be known as the Hoban Memorial Building, in honour of architect James Hoban, who was born across the Tipperaryborder in Callan, Co Kilkenny and who designed the White House.

It will also include a reproduction of Lafayette Park, the grounds at the front of the US president's residence.

The eight-storey hotel will house the casino and will have two ballrooms, four restaurants, two bars, conference and meeting rooms and six shops. Outside there will be a heliport, shops, conference facilities and parking for more than 6,000 cars, buses, and horse and greyhound boxes.

But although Quirke has his planning permission, that is less than half the battle. Casinos are still illegal in Ireland. The existing clubs get around this by providing a members-only service. Many, like the Fitzwilliam club, don't even serve alcohol. Others provide drinks for free to members, but they operate in a very grey area from a legislative perspective.

The Two-Mile Borris project will only go ahead if the Oireachtas passes legislation to enable the opening of casinos. A consultation paper on legislative options for the gambling sector was published last December by former Justice Minister Dermot Ahern.

The paper outlined a framework for licensing and regulating small-scale casinos which operate, like Fitzwilliam and the Sporting Emporium, as private members' clubs. The paper included a proposal to allow a resort casino similar to that proposed for Tipperary .

It suggested that a major casino with multiple gaming tables and between 1,000 and 1,500 slot machines could be appropriate.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Alan Shatter insisted last week that reform of betting laws and rules on casinos would take into account all forms of gambling, including the growth of online betting.

"Any legislative proposals arising from the minister's examination and subsequent discussions at Cabinet will follow in the normal course,'' his spokeswoman said.

"No decision will be made solely focusing on the promotion of an individual project,'' he said.

Hickson is adamant that the opposition of the Gaming and Leisure Association of Ireland to Quirke's super casino is not based on any alternative plans by their membership to form a syndicate or consortium to build a super casino of their own in, say, Dublin,

"I think the people behind the Tipperary plan have shot themselves in the foot from a political point of view. There is a process that has to be gone through before any licence is awarded, whether it be small or large. The draft legislation, which we gather is based on the document published last December, is only at the stage where the Heads of Bill are being drafted. It hasn't even gone to the minister for his consideration. When he gets it he will have to decide whether he wants to include the option of a resort-style casino or not," Hickson said. But that isn't all. There is a further process which has to be negotiated before the 'Tipperary venue' becomes a reality.

"If the minister approves a resort-style casino the legislation has to go through the house. Then it will have to go to an adjudication panel which will decide if it is appropriate to have a resort-style casino in Ireland. If they say yes, they will then be given the task of deciding the best location to put the facility. That process is designed to remove the danger of TDs trying to get a resort-style casino in their own constituency.

"If they come back and say it should be in Galway or Dublin or wherever, there may be a tendering process to establish who actually gets awarded the licence," Hickson said.

He is worried that those who oppose gambling will focus on the massive scale of the 'Tipperary venue' and politicians will shy away from doing anything.

"There is a middle ground, smaller casinos like ours, which satisfy the local and the tourism markets. It doesn't have to have a replica of the White House," he said.

Sunday Independent

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