Friday 20 April 2018

A new stadium would breathe life into ailing region

A bit of GAA vision could regenerate a 
struggling community

Venues like Hyde Park are no longer viable. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE
Venues like Hyde Park are no longer viable. Picture credit: Piaras O Midheach / SPORTSFILE

Shane Curran

I WANT to take you back 30 years or so to the early 1980s. It was a time of widespread hardship, economic stagnation and mass emigration in the midlands and west, in many ways not very different from the plight we find ourselves in now. One man, Monsignor James Horan, had an extraordinary vision. He saw that a patch of bog in Co Mayo had the ability to transform the economic life of the country around it and Knock Airport was born.

Behind him a group of key supporters, of a vision many dismissed as unrealistic and unattainable, helped him to pursue his dream. Mgsr Horan believed in the dream of Knock Airport and believed it could help restore economic prosperity to the region, but even he could not have foretold the life his vision has breathed into an area that was once dying. Last year more than 750,000 people came through its arrivals gates, bringing tourists and business activity to the west.

I have a vision I believe can help revitalise and develop rural and small urban areas of seven or eight counties in the BMW (borders-midlands-west) region. I see a stadium development incorporating other types of infrastructure, including an educational campus, entertainment, retail and hospitality opportunities.

The stadium would be the heartbeat of the development, pumping life and employment into the community and bringing a core entertainment asset to a part of Ireland long neglected. The development I have in mind is a mixed-use, multi-function stadium that can be operating in five to seven years with the right planning and development.

Most new stadiums built in Europe on green-field sites in the last decade have had conference facilities, offices, leisure services, restaurants and hotels, museums and retail parks attached. I am proposing something similar but with one massive difference. Education should be at the core of this development and that will make it a hugely attractive proposition for public and private investors.

A dream stadium is not what we need. We need something affordable and sustainable that drives the local economy and community. It will be an emotive issue for sure, as people will want to cling on to local stadiums like Pearse or Hyde Park but these venues are not viable. They are used maybe three or four times a year and are not really suitable for other economic activity. They are redundant, ugly reminders of a past that had no vision of how the future should be. The GAA needs to rethink its infrastructural strategy. Pumping millions of euro into unsustainable archaic grounds is not what the future should hold.

The GAA needs to sit down with the government and discuss the best way forward. The politicians must stop their petty squabbling and devise a new national infrastructure strategy that plots a way forward and plans how we invest in the future of our people.

There are examples of how these developments can work to revitalise a community and local area and we don't have to go searching hard to find them. Doncaster Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium is one such development. The venue has a capacity of 16,000 and was built for a budget of close to €30m. It is a mixed-use facility and leased to the development company on a 99-year contract.

On match days, between 600 and 700 people are employed while 2,000 work there for concerts - the likes of Robbie Williams has played sell-out shows to crowds of 40,000.

It brings between 300,000 and 400,000 to the greater Leeds area and in just under eight years it has provided 5,500 jobs.

I want to go a step further from that and include a post-primary educational campus alongside a mixed-use stadium with a capacity for 20-25,000. This type of venue could provide up to 10,000 jobs for the surrounding areas and bring massive economic benefits to the BMW region.

Stadiums with multi-use purposes have become more and more popular, catering not only for sporting events but cultural and major music extravaganzas.

Last week, I wrote of how access to knowledge is only open to people on the eastern seaboard and in Cork or Limerick. The Shannon is an underused resource and in Athlone there is a very strong infrastructural support. Connectivity and visibility, allied to a geographical location that offers a gateway of opportunity to the west of Ireland. A campus like this married with Athone IT, and encompassing educational needs, can be a focal point, drawing all these aspects together. Existing educational institutions in the area, for example Summerhill College and St Aloysius College, could be offered a turnkey solution on site in exchange for their current buildings.

Pumping millions of euro into 
archaic grounds is not what the future should be

In addition to that, access to sports coaching and other cultural knowledge can be widened to include the neglected heart and western periphery of this island.

We have seen in the last few days how a lack of vision can impact on society and business. In my view, the Garth Brooks debacle is a poor reflection on the country and is a failure of politics. Imagine if we had such a facility in the midlands. It would open the area up to economic recovery and drive the renewal of the community. We could even bring Garth Brooks here. Without vision and new ideas, there will be no audience left to buy tickets to concerts whether they are licensed or not. A regenerative sustainable development will bring economic and social prosperity to an area that requires such an investment. This change needs to start now.

We have a Taoiseach from the West of Ireland who has sat in Croke Park's Ard Chomhairle or been driven through the economic wastelands created by social and government neglect on his way to McHale Park to watch Mayo play. He claims that his phone is always on. Well Taoiseach, mine is never turned off.

The socio-economic impact of a new vision like this can be measured in contributions from employment, revenues and tax, and are the driving force for public sector involvement. The immeasurable benefits related to a new stadium development are generally regarded as extensive to areas currently underdeveloped.

The land is there. The opportunity is there. This should not be a lost chance for this generation. The heart of the country should not be left to decay. We can look back to Monsignor Horan's vision for Knock during terrible times and see the proof of what is possible. The airport is continuing to develop business and expand tourism in the west.

The heart of the midlands and west is failing. This stadium and campus development can be the shot of adrenaline that restores the heart, pumping new life into the ailing country around it.

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