€8.25m conference centre cash for Howard Holdings halted

CORK’S city manager has withdrawn an offer to troubled building firm Howard Holdings to invest over €8 million of public money in the development of a conference centre.

The city council offered the investment in 2007 to encourage the private sector to build a 5,000-seat conference and events centre for the city. The council invited expressions of interest by offering to take a 25% stake – up to a maximum of €12m – in such a venue.

Several proposals emerged, but the Howard Holdings’ proposal, pitched as part of its ambitious €1 billion Atlantic Quarter docklands development, was judged to offer the best potential.

The council agreed to invest €8.25m in an equity stake in the venue to secure the facility for the city. It was to be built alongside a hotel near Páirc Uí Chaoimh and be in place by last September.

But in a report to councillors last night, Mr Gavin said “in the light of changed economic circumstances the project did not materialise”.

“Having regard to the uncertainty which had arisen, I advised the relevant parties earlier this month that the council’s offer to invest €8.25m in the project was withdrawn,” he said.

Last March a High Court judge ordered the arrest of Howard Holdings’ managing director, Greg Coughlan, who faces jail for contempt of court orders directing him to supply a statement of his assets to investors pursuing him for €28.1m in unpaid property loans.

Another High Court judge said he was satisfied Mr Coughlan was evading arrest over his failure to obey the court orders. Mr Coughlan has not been seen at his Kinsale home since and is understood to be abroad.

Mr Gavin told councillors last night that the success of the Live at the Marquee series underlines the need for a permanent large events centre in the city.

He said other private sector parties have since indicated their interest in providing such a facility. Among them is Owen O’Callaghan who has said he intends building a €50m 5,000-seat events centre on Albert Quay.

“The situation may have developed to a point where the private sector may provide this facility without the financial support of the city council,” Mr Gavin said.

Cllr Sean Martin (FF) said city management should now do everything possible to deliver this much-needed facility.

“We have been talking about this for 10 years,” he said.

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