A year on, Cork’s big events centre plan has stalled. Developers now seek an extra €10m to complete it. Sod-turning photo-op is haunting Simon Coveney. But minister is defending the procurement process. Eoin English has more.
A week is a long time in politics — a year is even longer, especially when you’re talking about the stalled Cork event centre project.
It was Friday, February 12, 2016, just days before the general election, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny was in Cork in full campaign mode.
Flanked by senior cabinet colleagues, he turned the sod first on the regeneration of the former Capitol cinema site — a John Cleary development which was to be built by BAM, and which is now nearing completion.
Moments later, he turned the sod on the site of the Beamish and Crawford brewery site to herald the start of the city’s long-awaited 6,000-seat events centre.
BAM would build this too, having won a tender for €20m of public funding sanctioned two years earlier to help kickstart the development. After decades of false dawns, two years after the public funding was sanctioned, after protracted contract negotiations were concluded, and EU clearance on the complex state-aid arrangements, this was finally it.
As Mr Kenny hurled the sod skywards, public expectations were raised that construction work would start soon.
The expectations were fuelled by comments from BAM boss Theo Cullinane who predicted that work would start on site within weeks. Live Nation boss Mike Adamson said he hoped the venue would be ready to host its first concert in late 2018.
Not surprisingly, opposition politicians dismissed the sod-turning as nothing more than an election stunt.
Minister Simon Coveney, who has taken a personal interest in delivering the project, roundly rejected the criticism.
It was, he insisted, a public display of the commitment of all involved — Government, city council, the developers BAM and entertainment giants, Live Nation — to finally deliver this vital piece of infrastructure for Cork, and the region.
But within weeks, it was clear the project had stalled. Apart from some minor demolition work, not a single brick has been laid, and one year on, that sod-turning photo has come back to haunt Mr Coveney.
The official line has always been that detailed internal design work was under way, that it was complicated, and would take some time.
Despite repeated assurances that a delivery timeline would emerge, a final price tag has yet to be agreed, and there is still no indication of when building work will start.
The delays have eroded public confidence in the project and even spawned a parody account on Twitter, @CorkEventCentre.
It has now emerged that what the public and politicians didn’t know last February was that the facility as designed then was never going to be commercially viable enough for Live Nation to make a return on its estimated €30m investment.
BAM and Live Nation have spent the last year working on internal designs to make this one of the most versatile and flexible venues of its kind in the world — flexible enough to host up to 300 events annually.
That design work has seen costs increase, with the Government now poised to consider a request for another €10m injection of public funding.
No-one doubts the commitment of Live Nation or BAM to the project — BAM alone has spent up to €6m on the scheme to date.
But, on the first anniversary of the sod-turning, Mr Coveney has again been forced to defend the timing of the sod-turning ceremony, and the lack of progress on the development.
“I have justified that photograph on the basis of it being the start of a process — and it was. That is when everybody committed to build the event centre on that site,” he said.
“The idea that you wouldn’t launch a project when everyone is committed to it, and the site has been purchased, when the state is contributing significant amount of the cost, it would have been bizarre if we didn’t.
“The idea that nothing is happening is lazy commentary. There is a load of stuff happening. Unfortunately, the project hasn’t progressed at the pace we would like to see, and I’d like to see the building on the way up, but I don’t think that the people committed to this project will allow the ball to drop at this stage.
“Everything the State has been asked for to date, they’ve given — in terms of funding, momentum and planning. But there is another ask, and we have to assess that, and make a decision on it, and we have to make it quickly.”
He said it was only when BAM and Live Nation began to work on the detailed internal designs that it became clear that this venue was going to cost more money.
“The truth is that this is a very specialist job — to design an events centre of this complexity — this isn’t just a warehouse that’s going to host concerts,” he said.
“It is people with no involvement in this, people who have done nothing to help this process, who are the most critical.”
He said confirmation last week that the State may have to pump another €10m into the project hasn’t come as a surprise, and that he flagged this possibility with Minister for Public Expenditure, Paschal Donohoe, last September.
“If you’re spending tens of millions of euro of taxpayers money, you need to be damn sure it represents full value for money. I have a responsibility to the taxpayer to ensure that happens,” he said.
“If any more public money is committed, we will need to get clear timelines from BAM. What we’re not going to allow is a repeat of what we’ve had for the last 12 months — a discussion around estimates, costings, internal designs.
“Everybody at this stage wants absolute clarity on the final cost, and if it’s to be approved, what’s the timescale to deliver a built, finished product. I think we will get there in the coming weeks.”
The Department of Public Expenditure will now oversee a value-for-money audit of the final price tag before deciding on whether to sanction the additional funding ask.
“This is a project that will give a lot more back to the exchequer than it will cost, over time,” Mr Coveney said.
“If you took the view that money should only go into infrastructure that’s dealing with the latest emergency, you’d never invest in the medium term. Ireland’s second city needs an events centre, it should have had one provided 20 years ago.”
As well as steering the request for extra funding through the audit process and Cabinet, Mr Coveney will also have to justify it in the court of public opinion.
Critics are already lined up, with Anti-Austerity Alliance Cllr Fiona Ryan insisting that the project shouldn’t get an extra cent.
“The taxpayer should not be held to ransom by big business putting a gun to the head of the public to begin work when they’ve been extremely generously subsidised by both the local authority and the government thus far,” she said.
“This call from Minister Coveney demonstrates the correctness of the AAA’s position that from day one, the project should have been funded and 100% owned by the public rather than the current situation we now face, where the government is allowing itself to be gouged by private developers.
“Progress on the event centre must begin immediately, the people of Cork’s patience has well and truly been exhausted.”
But Mr Coveney said he makes no apologies for advocating for increased state support, within reason, for the project.
“Ever since we launched this a year ago, and the competitive tender process concluded, I was adamant that this would happen, and that we would find a way of making it happen. I’m more confident now than I’ve ever been that it will happen, but I am frustrated at the length of time it has taken.”
We’ve heard that before. Time will tell.
[timecap=A year and a day ago, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton, and Theo Cullinane of BAM turned the sod at the Events Centre site, watched by Lord Mayor Cllr Chris O’Leary and Minister Simon Coveney. The other major Cork development launched that day, the Capitol, is almost complete.]zzzEndaKennyJoanBurtonCorkEventCentre_large.jpg[/timgcap]
A story that has been brewing for 225 years
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