Cork events centre: Developers break silence in long-running saga

Funding deal agreed and construction of events centre could start before end of 2018, writes Eoin English.

What the initial plans for the events centre and regeneration of the former Beamish and Crawford brewery site was supposed to look like.

Developers BAM and entertainment giants Live Nation have broken their silence on the stalled Cork event centre project to confirm that a funding deal has been agreed which could see construction start before the end of the year.

In their first public comment in almost a year on the saga, which has seen costs on the 6,000-capacity venue soar from some €50m to at least €73m since the sod was turned two years ago, they said significant progress has been made in relation to who picks up the tab for the additional costs, and how.

They both restated their commitment to delivering the venue for Cork and the wider region.

Three years since the initial €20m was sanctioned, two years since the sod turning, and countless reassurances later, it is the strongest signal yet that this process is still on track.

This news is positive, but we’ve heard positive news before — and building work has yet to start.

A source close to the process said that while publicly it appears as if nothing has happened, significant progress has been made and the process is at a critical stage.

“The reason we are sticking with this is because everyone involved believes it can be delivered. Everyone is still on board. But this really is the last chance saloon,” he said.

Independent councillor Mick Finn summed it up best by urging all involved to “deliver or wave the white flag”.

In a statement to the Irish Examiner over the weekend, BAM Ireland chief executive Theo Cullinane confirmed the project is still alive.

“Progress has now been made to bridge the funding gap and whilst approvals are needed, I am confident that the project can now proceed,” he said.

Live Nation chief executive Mike Adamson expressed optimism that the funding gap has, in principle, been overcome, with the three parties — the State, BAM, and Live Nation — each contributing additional funding.

“Naturally there are formalities to be concluded, but I am confident that the process will shortly be proceeding onto the final stages of design for construction,” said Mr Cullinane.

The infamous sod-turning ceremony two years ago, featuring Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, and Simon Coveney. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who has taken significant flack for the delays as he tried to keep the tortuous process on track, said he expects an announcement on the increased State funding in a matter of days, as part of the capital plan.

“I am very confident that we can stand over a very substantial investment to partner with the increased funding with our partners,” he said.

He insisted that the State will only invest what it can, legally, in the construction of the venue — understood to be in the region of €30m — to protect the integrity of the original tender process.

Mr Coveney said the State is poised to invest in public infrastructure around the former brewery site as part of the overall funding breakthrough agreed in recent days.

Publican Finbarr O’Shea, who, for the last 40 years, has run the Flying Enterprise complex across the river from the former brewery, has been watching the process carefully.

He said everyone accepts that BAM has done great work for Cork over the years. “But the time has come for them to deliver on this project,” he said.

“If they’re not going to build it on this site, they should hand the site over to the city. They can’t leave the site derelict for much longer.

“My business isn’t depending on the events centre, but I know a lot of businesses in the city centre are waiting for this to happen.

“We need this to happen, not just for the city centre, but for the county, for Munster, for the region.”

St Laurence’s Church foundations undergoing excavation in May 2017, with the spires of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in the background. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

In December 2014, BAM won a competitive bid, following a process overseen by Cork City Council, for €20m in state aid to kickstart the project.

When Live Nation came on board afterwards, they ordered a complete redesign of the tendered venue amid concerns that it just wasn’t “commercially viable”.

Council chief executive Ann Doherty defended the original process even though it produced venue designs which just didn’t stack up financially.

“At that point in time, that was the right process,” said Ms Doherty.

BAM said the fundamental difficulty was that an operator could not be involved in the procurement process.

“Since then, Live Nation have become engaged and have developed a design that will work to make the event centre successful and sustainable,” said Mr Cullinane.

“It should be noted that whilst the delay in getting to this point has been frustrating, the time to allow the very extensive archaeological excavations to take place — for almost all of this time — was necessary.

The 18th-century works of the Cork Glass Company under excavation. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

“Given the extensive nature of the site and the historic artefacts being discovered, it would have been necessary to allow Dr Maurice Hurley and his archaeological team this time to do his work.”

Among the discoveries were remains of Viking houses dated to the 11th century, a Viking dagger, portions of the old city wall, and the remains of St Laurence’s Church.

“While BAM’s commitment to this project [the event centre] has often been questioned, over the last two years this archaeological investigation has cost the greater part of €1m, which has been fully funded by BAM,” Mr Cullinane said.

“This is in addition to nearly €6m invested by BAM in purchasing the site and the site clearance work to date.”

Within weeks of the now infamous sod turning, Live Nation was raising concerns about the commercial viability of the venue which had won the tender for €20m funding.

The entertainment giant, which runs venues all over the world, insisted the Cork venue had to be adaptable enough to host opera and rock, family shows and circuses, sports events, dinners, and conferences, while being flexible enough to change from concert mode, to theatre, sports, convention, or banqueting mode in a matter of hours.

The tendered 10,600 sq m venue was increased to 13,500 sq m and costs soared. The last estimate was close to €73m. That’s expected to increase. The last year has been spent assessing BAM’s request for an additional €18m in State funding.

But the emergence last week of details of a legal row between BAM Civil Ltd and the Port of Cork over BAM’s €12m “arithmetical error”, which led to it underestimating its €46.3m tender for port relocation works, has heightened concerns about the events centre process.

BAM hasn’t commented on that saga but a source close to the event centre project said the reason the various parties were all still engaged was because they all firmly believe it can be delivered.

Mr Finn said it has been frustrating to see the sands shifting continuously.

“That they have not run out altogether is the only source of comfort,” he said.

Mr Finn said people have heard enough reassurances, and the rising costs and uncertainty over how additional public funding can be delivered now needs to be addressed.

“There is no other option on the table and talk of other tenders four years ago is moot… Lose this one and it’s back to square one,” he said.

The Government is expected to sign off on its increased funding within days. It is understood that BAM and Live Nation each require board approval for their increased funding commitments — Live Nation needs a decision from London and Los Angeles — but that is expected to be forthcoming.

Mr Cullinane said an amendment will be needed to the planning following the redesign of the venue, which has involved the incorporation of an office building that fronted the event centre on South Main St.

He said there is no real change to the “overall massing of the buildings”.

“Both BAM and Live Nation have worked together to increase the available funding and reduce costs.

“These initiatives, together with the necessary public funding, makes it very likely that the project can now proceed.

“All of the parties involved [BAM, Live Nation, and Government] will require formal approvals from their respective entities, which should be in place before the end of February.

“Detailed design to construction levels of detail can then commence and this is expected to be fully completed to allow a start on site by the third quarter of this year.”

Mr O’Shea said an events centre in the city centre will be a massive economic boost for a city on the cusp of significant development, with cranes punctuating the city’s skyline, new offices and hotels planned, a multimillion-euro mixed-use scheme earmarked for Horgan’s Quay, and some €100m of off-market deals on key retail sites concluded in recent weeks.

Cork Convention Bureau (CCB) secured €12.9m worth of new business last year, attracting in excess of 8,000 international delegates — up 13% on 2016.

CCB’s Seamus Heaney said the benefit was felt throughout Cork and positively impacted hotels, restaurants, taxis, the airport, and the retail sector.

But he said the CCB only targets the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions) market for under 1,000 people.

Having a 6,000-capacity venue would let the bureau pursue millions worth of new business, the impact of which would be felt around the region.

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