OPINION: No sign of Cork's ‘game changer' events centre

July 4th, 2016 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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WELL, is it going ahead or not? Cork people kinda want to know, like. Especially since the Corpo has agreed to pump eight million smackaroos into an events centre on the South Main Street.

The entertainment centre – to be located on the site of the former Beamish and Crawford brewery – will surpass London’s O2 Arena, Barcelona’s Palau Sant Jordi, Switzerland’s Montreux Palace, Biloxi’s Coast Coliseum (wha?) and put Dublin’s 02 into the halfpenny place – and that’s saying something.

At the turning of the sod ceremony two weeks before the general election,  Enda Kenny and sidekick Madame Burton announced that the centre would be ‘a game changer’ for Cork.  

But, as no contracts had been signed and not a cement mixer was in sight, Corkonians felt our leaders were a tad too cocksure about a ‘game changer,’ considering that everything at the empty Cork brewery remained quite static. 

Very much in the news, however, is the Corpo’s €8m pledge to the developers of the events centre, plus a commitment from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to contribute a whopping €12m. State investment of €20m is nothing to sniff at, hence the unease at the incomprehensible failure to advance the project.


The developers

Behind the €50m venture is a Heineken-BAM consortium (BAM Ireland is a subsidiary of the Royal BAM Group of the Netherlands). Also involved is Live Nation, a Beverly Hills-based entertainment company. It will act as the concert venue operators.  

Live Nation owns or operates 117 venues worldwide, including the Three Arena and Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin. In 2008 it signed a 12-year deal with U2 worth million that allowed it control the band’s merchandise, sponsoring and official website.

Last February, the developers said work would begin within three weeks and that the target was to have the centre complete and operational in 24 to 26 months; major concerts ‘certainly’ would take place in the summer of 2018.

Which was great news! Theo Cullinane, CEO of BAM, said the venue would host between 170 and 200 performances per annum, with about half a million people annually coming to the city for concerts. 

As well as putting on family shows, West End musicals, concerts, pantomimes, sports events, trade shows, theatre, festivals and exhibitions, the building would serve also as a convention centre. 

But, sad to relate, as deadline after deadline was missed, frustration and scepticism set in among Leesiders.  Planning was granted in December 2014 and it was confidently predicted by government TDs, especially Minister Simon Coveney, who earned the kudos for securing the project for Cork, that construction would begin in 2015. 


Upbeat Minister

That didn’t happen. In fact nothing happened. And, against such a background, the mixed signals sent out by the Minister did not reassure Leesiders. For instance, amid growing concerns at the lack of progress, Coveney urged people at the beginning of September 2015 – nine months after the public funding deal was agreed – to be patient. ‘Robust and difficult commercial negotiations’ were the reason for the delay, he explained.

A little later he warned that the government spondulicks would not be on the table forever. Here’s what he said: ‘I have 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.’

Coveney’s confidence in the venture seemed to be wobbling, creating a civic anxiety moment that was worsened by stories swirling about town that Heineken Ireland had ceased to be interested in the project. Heineken later said there was no truth in the rumours.

Happily, by January of this year, Coveney was more upbeat. Work would begin within a month, he declared, attributing the postponement to intense negotiations between stakeholders, who now included the government-controlled Strategic Investment Fund. 


Edgy politicos

Then, finally in April of this year, came a positive announcement. BAM announced work was expected to begin ‘in the coming weeks’ and that the tendering process for the demolition of the Beamish site was under way. Cheers all round, but the only evidence of any kind of start-up consisted of a few portacabins, which were installed to service work on the site of the Capitol cinema down the road!

The result is that Cork politicos are now decidedly edgy. Matters weren’t helped when the news leaked out that design works had yet to be completed and that the developers sought an extension to the scheme’s five-year planning permission. Cllr Terry Shannon was prompted to harrumph something in City Hall about public confidence in the plan fading.

Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire warned there was ‘no guarantee that the promised money would always be available for the 6,000-seat venue’ and the more delays that took place ‘the more likely it gets that the money won’t be there.’

Councillor Mick Finn cautioned that the government dough could be withdrawn and used for other purposes. Fine Gael’s John Buttimer agreed, as did several other politicos.  

And the current situation? Ann Doherty, Cork City Council’s chief executive, confirmed the construction plans and financial model had still to be finished – indeed, contracts for the €12m in funding from the department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have yet to be signed but – nil desperandum – ‘work was in progress.’


Nothing to show

Outgoing Lord Mayor O’Leary summed up the situation in a way that was typical of Cork’s reliance on home-grown stoicism when things got messy: ‘I think we have to have faith that it will go ahead, despite having no evidence that it will.’  To which the entire city cried: ‘sound man, boy!’

Concerned too is Conor Healy of the Cork Chamber of Commerce, who appealed for the contracts to be signed pronto.

Meanwhile, Cork City Council invited the developers to a private meeting to explain what was going on.

 The inevitable row broke out when some councillors demanded a public meeting.

With the onus now on Coveney, Kenny and chums to ensure the project commences as quickly as possible, another factor is muddying the waters: speculation that the delay is a consequence of government efforts to get the EU to underwrite the plan. 

Distinguished political commentators – generally found in The Cork Arms – suggest that Coveney and chums are trying to pacify increasingly-nervous private investors, which, if true, will lead to demands for clarification of what exactly the politicos are up to.

So, in sum total, what can the developers, investors, BAM, Heineken, the Fine Gael government and Simon Coveney show for their herculean effort to put Cork on the entertainment map? Answer: a very small hole in the ground excavated by Dame Enda in his sod-turning electoral stunt!  

It could only happen in Cork!

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