Is the plan for a super-casino a good idea? Don’t bet on it

ONE THOUSAND construction jobs for north Tipperary for three years, followed by 2,000 more jobs in the finished development sounds like a good deal that no government could object to, especially when no government financial assistance is being sought.

Even better, the proposed development would attract many tourists, who would be expected to spend money that would not otherwise circulate in the area, and the tax revenues from the jobs and spending could be enormous potentially for the Government.

No wonder people in the area of Two Mile Borris are excited by the prospect of businessman Richard Quirke, once of the area but now a wealthy businessman in Dublin where he has made a fortune from operating “gaming machines” in so-called “wonder emporia” and investing the proceeds in property that he sold profitably, organising investment of €460 million in the construction of his dream.

And what a dream it is. What is being proposed would have been raised eyebrows even at the peak of the Celtic Tiger madness. At a time when hotels are closing, or are operating at unprofitable rates just to get any cash in, Quirke wants to buck the conventional wisdom by building a 500-hundred room luxury hotel, a golf course, an all-weather horse racing track, a separate greyhound racing circuit, shops and, wait for it, a full replica of the White House that recreates the original interiors that apparently have been lost to renovation. The plan includes an underground entertainment centre, with a retractable roof capable of holding 15,000, as a rural alternative to the O2 in Dublin.

They’ll even be a chapel, parking for 8,000 cars and, according to the well advanced plans that have been put together by a reputable firm of architects, there will be aerial access. Not all of the country’s multi-millionaires have had to give up their helicopters apparently.

Quirke has spent €30 million already on assembling the 800-acre site and last week he lodged the planning application with North Tipperary County Council. He is confident apparently that there’ll be no local objections and that construction work can start next year. He has significant local support too.

Independent TD Michael Lowry might not be a very credible figure outside of his constituency but he remains highly popular and influential within it and he also has the ear of the Government because of a deal that Bertie Ahern cut with him to secure his vote after the last general election. The famous Ballydoyle race-horse trainer Aidan O’Brien has pitched in with support which is highly significant not just in his own right. Ballydoyle is owned by Coolmore Stud and in turn its billionaire owner is John Magnier, which implies he may supporting this plan (although this may not extend to investment).

Here’s where it get really intriguing. On any normal commercial basis this idea would not work. There is a massive surplus of hotel accommodation in the country; golf clubs do not have sufficient numbers of paying members to cover overheads; Horse Racing Ireland is talking of shutting courses because they cannot pay their way and shopping is no longer the national pastime now that incomes have been hammered and debts are being unwound.

Quirke might also find it difficult to get banks to lend to him in this economic environment, irrespective of how good his idea may be or his track record is. No Irish bank is going to provide finance in the NAMA environment and the idea that foreign banks would lend money to what Lowry called “the most sophisticated and ambitious project the country has ever seen” seems implausible given this country’s reputation in international circles at present.

Two things could change that, however. If Quirke could significant other investors on board, reducing the amount of debt that would be needed, then he might have a chance. If a licence for a super-casino — the country’s first — was allowed as part of the development then it is possible that the likes of Magnier and his close friends JP McManus and Dermot Desmond, both of whom have significant interests in the gambling business, might be interested in becoming involved.

Casinos worldwide make enormous money for their owners. The “house” always wins. The casino would be the cashcow for the entire project, subsidising other parts of the operation and providing the money to repay the loans and dividends for investors.

Michael Lowry has said the Taoiseach Brian Cowen and ministers had been made aware of the project and he was confident of their support. Justice Minister Dermot Ahern is conducting a review of the legislation and has indicated he may change it in the coming months. Here’s the big question: will Lowry’s continued support for the Government depend on it giving him the required legislation to allow for construction of a super-casino of the size needed?

There is a more relaxed attitude to gambling in modern day Ireland, with new bookmaking operations having become established all over the country and the internet providing an outlet for all sorts of wagering, almost without control. Many “member’s clubs” popped up during the boom, when people had more money than sense and gambled it on blackjack, roulette and other high-stake games with abandon. It is a matter of personal choice what people do with their money of course but it is well known that casinos are central to the development of gambling addictions. With many people financially ruined as it is, do we want to give them even greater temptation to make things worse?

There are times when what critics of so-called political correctness call “nanny-statism” is actually required. If the State had regulated the provision of finance in the past decade — stopping the ready availability of loans for gambling on property and on the stock market — then the banks would not have been ruined and individuals and companies destroyed with them. People and institutions were allowed to gamble money that they didn’t have and the state, having turned a blind eye as they let rip, is now being required to pick up the tab which costs all of us in turn. Meanwhile, many of those who gambled in the name of investment are facing desperate consequences.

Our financial regulators did not protect citizens from the depredations of the banks and developers, so should the state avert its gaze now when it comes to the social problems that can be caused by excessive gambling? The National Lottery apparently wants the opportunity to operate the country’s first super-casino, arguing that the profits it makes can be redistributed to good causes. That is cynicism in the extreme and should not be allowed, as it effectively would be a tax by another name. But to allow private enterprise to profit in such a way would be a woeful idea, even if the people involved could argue that they are creating jobs and tax revenues for the state. Weigh up both sides of the argument and the idea for Tipperary North is not as seductive as it first seems.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm. His first book Who Really Runs Ireland? is in bookshops now.

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