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.

Artist’s impressions of how the Cork’s Events Centre will look.
Artist’s impressions of how the Cork’s Events Centre will look.

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.

Artist’s impressions of how the Cork’s Events Centre will look.
Artist’s impressions of how the Cork’s Events Centre will look.

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.

Artist’s impressions of how the Cork’s Events Centre will look.
Artist’s impressions of how the Cork’s Events Centre will look.

“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

  • 1792: The Beamish & Crawford brewery is founded by William Beamish and William Crawford.
  • 1805: Beamish & Crawford’s Cork Porter Brewery prospers to become the largest brewery in Ireland and the third largest in Britain and Ireland. Its output that year was 100,000 barrels per annum — up from 12,000 barrels in 1792.
  • 1833: It remains the largest Irish brewery until overtaken by Guinness.
  • 1901: The company goes public, issuing a share capital of £480,000. n 1962: The brewery is bought by the Canadian brewing firm Carling-O’Keefe, which invests in the modernisation of the plant.
  • 1987: Elders IXL buys Canadian Breweries (incorporating Carling-O’Keefe).
  • 1995: Elders sells the brewery to Scottish and Newcastle.
  • 2008: Heineken takes over Scottish and Newcastle, and Beamish & Crawford passes into the hands of its main Cork-based rival, Heineken International.
  • December 2008: Heineken announces plans to close Beamish & Crawford.
  • May 2009: The brewery closes with the loss of 120 jobs.
  • 2010: Site owners Heineken announce an international competition to select a development partner to regenerate the site. BAM wins with its €150m ambitious Brewery Quarter regeneration project — offices, student apartments, and a 6,000-seat concert, events and conference.
  • 2011: Planning granted for Brewery Quarter. Work is due to start on the event centre first.
  • April 2013: City Hall invites the private sector to pitch for public funding to secure the development of an events centre in Cork City.
  • July 2014: The complex tender process is thrown into turmoil when Live Nation withdraws just before tender deadline citing concerns about funding arrangements and penalty clauses. As a result, O’Callaghan Properties says it can’t lodge a compliant tender. BAM lodges its tender.
  • August 2014: City Hall announces a new tender process, and changes the criteria so that potential developers do not need to have an operator on board at this stage.
  • December 2014: Following a protracted tendering process, BAM wins the tender for state-aid, which has now been increased to €20m.
  • 2015: No sign of construction starting.
  • February 2016: Just weeks before the general election, Taoiseach Enda Kenny turns the sod on the project. The public is told that it is hoped the facility will open in 2018, and that demolition will start within weeks.
  • May 2016: Still no sign of construction work starting. City councillors ask for a briefing and are told it will be October before it can take place.
  • August 2016: It emerges that detailed internal designs are months from completion, and that the venue will not be open by 2018, as predicted.
  • September 2016: Demolition work and minor archaeological investigations start on site.
  • January 2017: BAM restates its commitment to delivering an events centre for Cork, and says the project is still on track.
  • February 2017: The internal design is complete but talks on increased costs are ongoing. Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Simon Coveney concedes that extra state funding will be required. The top-up could be up to €10m. City councillors are due to be briefed on the project on February 20.

The Counting House of the former Beamish and Crawford brewery on South Main Street around which the events centre complex was supposed to have risen.
The Counting House of the former Beamish and Crawford brewery on South Main Street around which the events centre complex was supposed to have risen.

‘Will building start straight away or is this just a photo opportunity?’

What they’ve said about the project

  • DECEMBER 23, 2014: BAM wins tender for €20m of state funding

Minister Simon Coveney: “There have been several false dawns on this project for Cork but I am delighted a decision has now been made. This facility will be the equivalent of the 3Arena, the National Arena, and the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, in one.

This is a strategic investment, a really exciting project that will have a huge impact on the city and its businesses — everything from rock concerts to conferences.

“It will have a bigger impact on the city than many other projects in recent years, creating a huge commercial ecosystem around it that will create a huge buzz in the city.”

  • SEPTEMBER 2015 — Concerns mount as project stalls

Minister Simon Coveney: “I’ve made it very clear to the people involved in the negotiations that the Government isn’t going to sit around forever. There are lots of projects in Cork that could do with the kind of money we’ve committed to the events centre. But this will happen for Cork, don’t be under any doubt about that.

“Because we haven’t seen a sod being turned on this site people are saying maybe it’s not going to happen. It is going to happen. I’ve been very involved in this project personally. We’ve worked hard to make sure the Government is making a serious contribution to ensure that this happens.

“There have been a lot of false dawns in Cork in relation to new events centres over the last 20 years. This isn’t a false dawn. It is going to happen.”

  • FEBRUARY 9, 2016 — A week before the sod turning and general election

Fianna Fáil Cllr Terry Shannon: “The Taoiseach is coming down as part of the Fine Gael roadshow, for the cameras, and the questions to the city council management team tonight were: Can we expect to see cranes on site straight away?

“Will building happen straight away, or is this just a photo opportunity?”

  • FEBRUARY 13, 2016 — Sod turning ceremony

Mike Adamson, CEO Live Nation: “Our target [for the first concert] is 24 to 26 months’ time from now, so we start all the demolition works in the next few weeks. Who will be the first artist? It’s impossible to say.”

Theo Cullinane, CEO BAM: “Work will start within two or three weeks. We’ll start with demolition, then we have some archaeological surveys and investigations to do, and then I expect we’ll keep going from there. I expect to be finished within 24 to 26 months.”

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: “These are very important infrastructure pieces. Obviously you can’t have them without an economy that’s thriving and in a position to resource these.

“This development here is part of a stimulus package that government were able to put together because resources were available. It’s going to bring enjoyment, entertainment and economic benefit and reputational benefit to Cork City. This is brilliant for Cork. It’s going to be a magnificent, state-of-the-art facility.”

Minister Simon Coveney: “This is a big, big project for Cork. It has been a case of having a number of false dawns over the last 20 years in Cork, around the building of an events centre for this city.

“The idea that people from Munster have to travel to Dublin to see big shows, big concerts, is not something that sits comfortably here. And we’re changing it. It has taken huge effort, both public and private, for making it happen.”

  • JUNE 22, 2016 — Still no sign of construction starting

Minister Simon Coveney: “People were asking for reassurances that this project was going to happen. I and the Government had given that commitment through the public funding. BAM and Live Nation also gave a public commitment to the scheme.

“If we hadn’t performed a sod turning, people would have been more sceptical about this project. Obviously, work is not going ahead as quickly as we would like, but there is no doubt that this project is happening. It is true to say that I’m frustrated at the lack of physical progress on site, but there is no change in terms of commitment to the project.”

  • JUNE 28, 2016 — More delays

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: “Enda Kenny came down here just before the election and turned an imaginary sod on the event centre. That kind of old-style gesture politics has no place in the modern world and he should not have done it.”

Minister Simon Coveney: “I know there is a real impatience in Cork to understand the timetable here. There are lots of people deeply committed to this project. I’m one of them, as is the lord mayor, the chief executive of the city council, and the Government.

“We will make this happen. It is taking time, and that’s frustrating a lot of people but this is a big, big project and unfortunately it’s not moving at a pace that some of us want to to see it moving at. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. We need to stick with the process.”

  • NOVEMBER 7, 2016 — Wider backlash

Sean McCarthy, Support the Brewery Quarter Campaign: “Almost two years ago we were led to believe we would have a new events centre by December 2017. It’s almost December 2016. This is a two-year build, and all we’ve seen on site is demolition, which started four weeks ago, with two machines.

"We’re still no wiser on whether contracts have been signed, has the funding been signed off, or whether we’re going to get an events centre in the city centre. We’re being told by Minister Simon Coveney that it is going ahead, that it’s nearly over the line — at least that’s what I’m reading in the papers.

"But I’d love somebody from either BAM or Live Nation, or for a joint statement — not just for us, but for the people of Cork City — to let us know where it stands.”

  • JANUARY 4, 2017 — Alf Smiddy, former CEO of Beamish & Crawford intervenes

“Our citizens and public representatives are deeply frustrated with the continued delay and what appears as general obfuscation on plans to develop the site.

“Given that the Government has committed to pump €20m of taxpayers’ money into the development of this private investment, can the people of Cork and Munster for once and for all get a full update by way of a statement from the owners on where things stand, and particularly what the critical timelines are from now to the completion of the project.”

  • JANUARY 17, 2017 — BAM’s backing

BAM CEO Theo Cullinane: “We remain fully committed to delivering an events centre to serve Cork and the region. We have spent over €6m of our own money to get to this stage, including design fees, planning costs, and site purchase.

“We want to build a quality venue, something iconic that the region can be proud of, and are doing everything in our power to ensure that this happens. We want to build a building of unique design, capable of catering for all event modes to ensure the sustainability of the venue’s business case.”

  • FEBRUARY 7, 2017 — Days before the first anniversary of the sod turning

Minister Simon Coveney: “I think this will require an increase in state support, and within reason, that can be forthcoming. I think it does represent value for money to increase the Government’s commitment to the project.

“But I am not willing to go back to the Government to ask for more money until I have clarity in terms of what the ask is, and independent verification of that. It’s my job to advocate for that, but it will be up to the Department of Public Expenditure to go through the value-for-money assessments.”

The stakeholders

Bam Ireland

One of Ireland’s top construction companies, it embarked on a joint venture with brewing giants and then site owners Heineken, on the ambitious €150m Brewery Quarter regeneration of the former Beamish and Crawford brewery site on Cork’s South Main Street.

There is full planning permission for offices, student apartments, and a 6,000-seat events centre on the site.

BAM bought the site from Heineken in early 2016 and it is now advancing the Brewery Quarter project on its own.

It won a competitive tender process in late 2014 for some €20m of public funding to kickstart the development in Cork of a multi-functional events centre.

Since the sod turning on site last February, it has been working closely with entertainment company Live Nation, the proposed arena operators, on the detailed internal design of the arena.

BAM intends to build the facility, and once complete, hand the management and operation of it over to Live Nation.

BAM Ireland, the wholly owned subsidiary of Royal BAM Group in the Netherlands, employs 2,000 people and had a turnover in 2015 of €384m.

Based in Cork, it has a series of operating companies include BAM Building, BAM Civil, BAM Property, and BAM Rail.

BAM Civil is the largest civil engineering contractor in Ireland, and has delivered projects include public private partnership motorway schemes like the N11 Arklow-Rathnew road, the N7 Newlands Cross scheme, M7/M8 Portlaoise motorway, and M25 Waterford bypass, court houses, school and university buildings including UCC’s Gateway building and the Clinical Research Facility and Translational Research Facility at NUI Galway, the Generic Ward Block at the Ulster Hospital, as well as water and wastewater projects, and several marine, energy and rail projects.

BAM Ireland has also completed several joint venture projects with BAM International in the Middle East including phase 1 of Terminal Four at Jebel Ali Port in Dubai and the design and construction of the Aqaba New LNG Terminal.

The company has built several events centres worldwide such as the 14,000 capacity O2 World Berlin; the 32,000 capacity Amsterdam Arena; the World Cup Final stadium in Johannesburg; the 32,000 capacity Dresden Stadium in Germany, and the Veltins Arena in Germany with a capacity of 51,000.

BAM also developed the 13,500-capacity Leeds Arena for Leeds City Council.

In Cork, the company has delivered several major civil engineering and building projects, including the award-winning One Albert Quay, Cork Airport’s terminal building, and the Western Gateway building for UCC.

It is currently working on the regeneration of the city’s district court complex on Anglesea St, and is nearing completion on the regeneration of the former Capitol cinema site.

Live Nation

Live Nation Entertainment is one of the world’s largest live-entertainment companies.

It was formed following the 2010-approved merger of concert promoters Live Nation and ticket sellers, Ticketmaster.

At the time, Live Nation and Ticketmaster had estimated annual revenue of about $6bn, with Live Nation, the world’s largest concert producer, selling around 45m concert tickets a year.

Today, the California-based company operates across several business divisions, including artist management, the production of live music concerts, the operation and management of concert venues, and the management of ticketing services.

It operates in more than 40 countries around the world, produces around 20,000 shows annually, and claims there is a Live Nation event somewhere in the world every 20 minutes.

It owns, operates, or has booking rights for more than 170 venues around the world, including House of Blues-branded music venues, and prestigious locations including San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, Nikon at Jones Beach in New York, London’s Apollo Theatre, and Wembley Arena.

It regularly produces tours for some of the biggest names in the music business, including U2 and its current Joshua Tree Tour, Coldplay, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Lionel Richie, and Guns N’Roses.

It also owns the controversial secondary ticket-selling platforms, Seatwave and Get Me In, which have been in the spotlight in recent weeks for the reselling at exorbitant prices of tickets for U2 and Ed Sheeran gigs here in Ireland.

The company has significant interests in Ireland. It owns and operates the 3Arena, it operates and manages the Bord Gáis Energy Market in Dublin, and recently announced that is has taken over management of the Olympia Theatre and the Gaiety Theatre. It also operates the SSE Arena in Belfast.

It has been exploring business opportunities in the south for several years, given the large volume of concert goers who travel from the south to attend concerts in Dublin or Belfast.

It has been involved in the Cork event centre saga since the competitive tender for public funding was announced. It is understood that its board has committed up to €30m to the proposed venue.

Cork City Council

The delivery of a multi-functional events and conference centre in Cork City has been a strategic target of Cork City Council for decades.

Two previous attempts by City Hall to incentivise the private sector to build an events centre in the city, including one in 2007 which offered around €8m of public funding, failed.

However, in 2013, against the background of grants of planning permission to two separate developers for event centres on two separate city sites, former city manager, Tim Lucey, launched another bid to secure the delivery of such a facility.

He said analysts had found there was an economic case to justify public investment in a large multifunctional event centre for the city, particularly in view of the renewed interest from the private sector.

He announced a competitive process and invited private developers to outline the level of public funding they would need to bridge the ‘market failure’ gap to get the project off the ground.

It was said at the time that such a facility would be of enormous economic benefit to the city, generating between €8m to €12m per annum and supporting up to 160 jobs.

BAM, with site owners Heineken Ireland, who had planning for a 6,000-seat event centre on the former Beamish and Crawford brewery site, and the late developer Owen O’Callaghan, who would soon secure planning approval from An Bord Pleanála for his proposed €50m 6,000-seat event centre on Albert Quay, emerged as the only viable contenders in the process.

Up to €16m of public money was on the table initially — around €10m from central government and €6m from City Hall.

A protracted tender process, which was overseen by the city council, ensued.

But it emerged within months that Live Nation had concerns about certain criteria and it withdrew from the process, prompting Mr O’Callaghan to withdraw from the process too. He said he couldn’t submit a legally compliant tender without an operator on board.

However, another tender process was established which ensured that bidders did not have to have an operator on board at this state.

The process was saved again from collapse again when the overall funding package was increased to €20m at the last minute — €12m from Government, to be drawn down from the Department of Arts, and €8m from the city council.

Then, on December 23, 2014, BAM was announced as the winner of the public funding.

The city council has also steered the complicated public funding mechanism through a protracted and complex process to ensure it complies with EU state-aid rules.

But the entire process has become bogged down over internal design issues, and an associated increase in costs.

The Government is now poised to consider a request from the developers for an increase of up to €10m in the level of public funding being allocated.

More on this topic

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