By David Raleigh
European banks are to invest €170m in a major plan by Limerick City and County Council to transform the city centre into one of biggest commercial districts outside of Dublin.
The "Opera Centre" development, which aims to create 3,000 jobs, will be built on a four-acre site in the heart of the Treaty City, subject to planning approval.
Today, European Investment Bank (EIB) Vice President Andrew McDowell signed an €85m loan contract at City Hall Limerick. It also emerged the Council of Europe Bank is to provide matching loan funds, bringing the total Council to €170m.
Afterwards, former Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, who attended the EIB contract signing, revealed he helped push through the loan deal, in his previous role as a Governor of the EIB.
“I'm very proud of it, it's good to be part of it,” Mr Noonan said.
“I was governor of the European Investment Bank for the last six years, and I nominated Andrew McDowell as the Vice President to represent Ireland, and I nominated John Moran (former Secretary General of Department of Finance) onto the Board of Directors, so (that) we were influential in the European Investment Bank, and that helped while we were negotiating the loan,” he added.
Mr Noonan revealed the Council had secured a very low interest rate of 1.2% on the 25-year loan.
He said: “It's a 25-year loan at 1.2%. It’s about as cheap as it gets, and that's great for Limerick.”
Commenting on the Council of Europe Bank matching €85m loan, he said: “Today there was a proposal going to their board, and I understand that it is sanctioned.”
“It's for another €85m for the (Opera) project in Limerick. It's matching funds from the two banks. So, the total amount of money is €170m.”
“I understand there was no hitch when it went to the board meeting today, and I've heard of no hitch since. You can take it that it has gone through, and the (Council of Europe Bank) will be putting out a press release tomorrow.”
The loan is a major coup for the Council, as well as and the city, which has been riding high on a crest of a jobs wave.
Since 2013, 12,000 IDA backed jobs have been announced in Limerick.
The Council's subsidiary development company, Limerick Twenty Thirty - which is behind the Opera Centre project - is spearheading several key strategic city centre sites, including the “International Gardens” development. It has attracted major interest from of a number of foreign direct investment firms.
When completed in June 2018 it will provide 80,000 sq.ft LEED Gold office space.
The company, chaired by former Kerry Group boss, Denis Brosnan, is also developing an eight-acre site at the former Cleeves Toffee factory, and has also sought planning for 850 homes on a 200-acre site in Mungret, located close to the N20.
Mr Noonan said: “Up to now we had the plans and we had the sites, but we didn't have the money to build on the sites. The money has now come, and it's cheaper."
Denis Brosnan said his only concern was the speed at which the projects would be delivered from their announcement date and planning approval.
“We are going to be in a big vacuum between the (International) Gardens being fully occupied, and the next big office space becoming available in the Opera Centre. I think that vacuum - being between 18 months and two years - and (we know) the big companies don't stay around (for long).”
“They don't stay around and wait, and they'll be heading for Dublin and Cork. So, I just think, with the momentum we have in Limerick we really have to try and get our heads around how do we keep it going.”