Adjournment Matters. - International Aquatic Centre.

Thursday, 15 February 1996

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 146 No. 6

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Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  The purpose of this Adjournment debate is to try to persuade the Minister to open a door which will allow the International Swimming Hall of Fame, ISHOF, to make a submission to him concerning the location of the European headquarters in Dublin. I understand the Minister has met these people on a number of occasions. He is holding up his hand but I am innumerate so I am unable to tell how many fingers and thumbs he has; maybe he is a specialised variety of humanoid. Would the Minister consider one further meeting with myself as facilitator? I have already told him that I am chairing a meeting of a body in the university this afternoon. It has been successful simply because meetings have been cut to one hour as no meeting I chair ever takes longer than that. I will be satisfied if the Minister gives me 30 minutes. Following that, I will either forever hold my peace or perhaps help to advance the situation further. I place myself in the hands of the Minister by earnestly requesting such a meeting. I will be present to watch both players in this rather convoluted saga.

The location of the European headquarters of ISHOF in Dublin would also entail the development of an aquatic centre with an Olympic sized ten lane swimming pool, eminently suitable for international competition. Ireland is in the fortunate position of being the location of first choice for this international grouping. It is, therefore, most surprising that such a proposed development should be met by such apparent official apathy. Evidently, however, the Minister is of a different opinion in this regard. If we fail to seize this opportunity there are many other European cities only too willing to grab the prize [588] for themselves. I am informed that a number of cities in Germany and the town of Leamington Spa in the United Kingdom have already made approaches with a view to securing the project.

Moreover, I have been informed by one of the leading sportsmen associated with the project that:

If some positive signal to ISHOF is not made by Government shortly, it will discontinue its negotiations with us and the opportunity of housing its European headquarters in Dublin will be lost.

This has been confirmed by the project executive of the Dublin International Sports Council — DISC. I understand that the Cabinet will shortly consider a proposal to approve, in principle, the construction of a £17 million, 50 metre swimming pool facility in Ireland independent of this project. While I welcome this development it is remarkable that so little thought should be given to making both developments compatible. I have an enormous dossier of figures which have been certified by reputable firms. In my opinion, those figures show that the margin of difference between the projects is clearly bridgeable. In the time available it is not possible to engage in an analysis of the figures but I am sure the Minister has access to them. If not, I can supply him with a copy.

The Dublin International Sports Council is concerned that, if the construction of a 50 metre swimming pool proceeds, it should be built to a standard which will enable the International Swimming Hall of Fame to establish its European headquarters in Ireland. ISHOF is the world's official promotion and development body for swimming. It has headquarters in the United States and Japan and is seeking a European base and Ireland has been selected as the ideal location. ISHOF has assisted Ireland by training some of its top athletes at its facility in Florida. The Irish Olympic team will be based there in the run up to the Olympic Games later this [589] year. ISHOF was instrumental in securing sponsorship for this team.

Perhaps I should have asked the indulgence of the House before commencing my contribution. If possible, I would like to share time with Senator Quinn.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Sean Fallon  Zoom on Sean Fallon  If the Senator is prepared to share time with Senator Quinn, I am sure the House can accommodate him. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  By establishing the headquarters of ISHOF in Ireland, the Olympic sized swimming pool would be transformed from one of domestic use alone into an international facility. In turn this will transform the finances involved. KPMG carried out a study of the proposal on behalf of DISC and that information has already been supplied to Government. It shows that the ISHOF swimming pool would attract 20,000 visitors per year, contribute £4.7 million to GNP annually, sustain 150 jobs and operate profitably. Unfortunately, negotiations with the relevant Departments concerning ISHOF's participation in Ireland have been carried out over a very, and to some people's minds unreasonably, long period.

In the interim, the town of Leamington Spa has submitted a proposal to ISHOF to place its European headquarters in the UK. Sources favourable to Ireland on the ISHOF board have successfully delayed a decision pending the outcome of negotiations with this country. However, unless some undertaking is given on this matter in the immediate future, it appears that the facility will be moved to the UK and lost to us forever. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that the Government rapidly provide a positive indication that it would welcome the submission of such a proposal, in detail, from the ISHOF authorities. I ask that the Minister issue such a letter requesting ISHOF to make a formal and direct presentation to the Irish Government in relation to this facility. Such a [590] presentation could take the form of the meeting to which I referred earlier.

Despite the fact that the swimming pool is projected to operate profitably, ISHOF has offered to underwrite the operating costs for the first five years. ISHOF will also make some of the best trainers and coaches in the world available to the Irish public. In addition, it will establish an Irish sports hall of fame and library. There is strong interest from the private sector to be associated with this development because of the prestige involved. DISC is at an advanced stage of negotiation with a major Irish corporation interested in making a substantial investment to the development of such a swimming pool, but it will only do so if ISHOF is involved. DISC, as a partner in the negotiations, has furnished and submitted all outstanding and relevant details and information to the Department. A special supplementary document was also prepared and submitted to the Department some months ago. All queries have been answered in detail. All figures submitted were prepared and certified by KPMG. All queries to the proposed aquatic centre have been submitted and confirmed by Messrs. Scott, Tallon and Walker, architects.

There is an additional matter of concern which relates to allegations that ISHOF demanded an up-front fee for any such relocation to Ireland. I can categorically state that this rumour is completely incorrect and misleading. The ISHOF fee has been secured by DISC and will be payable by the private sector over a period of two to three years. Any suggestions to the contrary are completely unfounded and untrue.

It is sometimes stated that swimming is a minority sport. While this may be the case in Ireland, it is lamentable and should be corrected. Swimming is a form of exercise widely regarded as being beneficial to a number of medical conditions, including cerebral palsy, mental handicap and arthritis. ISHOF is an international charity whose principal aim is to make the benefits of swimming available to the widest possible group of [591] people and participants throughout the world.

DISC's position is to support the Cabinet strongly in approving a proposal for a 50 metre swimming pool. It is crucial, however, that we do not miss the chance of ensuring that ISHOF establishes its headquarters in Ireland. The swimming pool should be constructed with this objective in mind. While I have indicated a preference for Ringsend, Dublin 4, because of existing marine facilities and its central location, it may be borne in mind that other areas such as Tallaght are keenly interested in the project.

I look forward to a positive response from the Minister. I would be happy to supply him with the detailed briefings which I received from the Dublin International Sports Council.

Mr. Quinn: Information on Fergal Quinn  Zoom on Fergal Quinn  I support Senator Norris. Since entering this House I have been loathe to encourage spending of taxpayers' money. However, this case represents a “win, win” situation from the point of view of employment, tourism and health. I am not aware of any other case involving similar benefits. The State should support Senator Norris on this issue.

Minister of State at the Department of the Environment (Mr. Allen): Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  The case, as presented by Senator Norris, represents a “win, win” situation. However, Senator Norris' case is one sided. On every available occasion I have attempted to pose relevant questions on behalf of the Department and the taxpayer.

Before dealing with this matter in detail, I must state that my Department has not had adequate time for consultation. I have attended a number of meetings, one of which lasted for four hours. Present at that meeting were a cross-section of interests involved in swimming and sport. Many of the questions raised by myself and my officials were not adequately answered by DISC.

[592]Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  It would not have lasted that long had I been present.

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  The long duration of the meeting resulted from our exploring every avenue relating to DISC's proposal. The Department also carried out a detailed report with regard to what is required for the Irish situation and not what has been imported from the American scenario. The latter seems glossy and attractive on the surface but, when examined in detail, all is not as it seems.

I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to this debate on a national 50 metre swimming pool. To put this debate in context, it is appropriate to outline the present position on the development of that swimming pool.

My Department has two proposals under consideration. The first has been developed by consultants commissioned by my Department who undertook a detailed feasibility study in late 1994 which involved consultation with all interested parties, including the Irish Amateur Swimming Association, local authorities and third level educational institutions. One of the key terms of reference given to the consultants was to come forward with a proposal that would suit the Irish situation and needs.

The consultants recommended that the 50 metre swimming pool be built in Tallaght on a site adjoining the town centre which is being offered free by South Dublin County Council. They recommend a highly flexible 50 metre pool with a substantial water leisure facility, which is estimated to cost a total of £17 million in the context of 1994 prices. In coming forward with that proposal the consultants established clearly that in order to make a 50 metre pool available to the public without loss to the taxpayer, it would have to be connected to a major leisure water facility which would attract sufficient people to the facility per week to meet the monetary targets. The inclusion of these additional revenue generating water leisure facilities would ensure that the complex could operate on a viable basis.

[593] This facility has been developed to cater for the specific needs of Ireland's elite swimmers as well as catering for national and a wide range of international competitions which could be realistically hosted in Ireland. They estimate that the complex would be used 80 per cent of the time as a community facility and the remaining 20 per cent would adequately cater for training and for competitions. They further point out that location is the single most important consideration in the development of such a major project and Tallaght is recommended because of its accessibility not only for Dublin but for the country as a whole.

The second proposal was developed by the Dublin International Sports Council — DISC — in late 1994 in consultation with the International Swimming Hall of Fame — ISHOF — which is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. These proposals provide for an Irish Olympic aquatic facility which includes a 50 metre, ten lane pool to full international and Olympic standards with seating accommodation for 3,000 people. They also recommend an eight lane, 25 metre warm up pool, a diving pool, offices for the Olympic Council of Ireland, an international swimming hall of fame, an Irish sports hall of fame, a museum and other ancillary accommodation.

This complex is estimated to cost £28 million and it is understood that up to £3 million would be available from the private sector towards the project cost. In a further submission of October, 1995, DISC indicates that the facility could be built on four possible sites in Dublin — Quarryvale, Blackrock, Tallaght or Grand Canal docks, which I assume is the location referred to by Senator Norris.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  It is one of them but I was not being exclusive.

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  I understand that ISHOF proposes to establish its European base in Ireland, subject to the provision of such an Olympic aquatic facility. ISHOF [594] also undertakes to meet any financial operational deficit incurred during the first five years of operation and they would establish an endowment fund to meet any operational deficits in the subsequent five years.

ISHOF envisages that the complex would be used extensively for major international competitions — eight such competitions in the first year, rising to 42 events in year ten. These events are forecast to attract significant overseas visitors and major corporate sponsorship which would allow the complex to achieve an operating surplus of £37,608 in the first year, increasing to £1.039 million in year ten.

I have given careful consideration to the proposals put forward by DISC and ISHOF. Not only have I met DISC but I have also met Mr. Sam Freass of ISHOF on two occasions when he put his proposals to me. He also said on each occasion that if we did not make a quick decision, he would withdraw his offer to Ireland and go elsewhere in Europe or the UK. He has not followed through on that threat yet, but it is still a threat. I am not aware of any such facility which operates on a viable basis without public financial support. I am also not satisfied that an adequate market exists or that the required demand has been established to support such an extensive range of facilities in the long term, as proposed by DISC-ISHOF, particularly the proposed museum and sports halls of fame. Other organisations in this country also have proposals for museums and halls of fame.

I have had numerous meetings with representatives of both DISC and ISHOF and further detailed and long meetings have been held with my Department's technical staff. All the aspects of both proposals have already been discussed in great detail. My Department has completed its examination of the DISC-ISHOF proposal in terms of the range of facilities and the suggested locations.

The provision of a national 50 metre swimming pool on the basis of my Department's consultants' report would [595] cost at least £17 million in 1994 prices. That has implications for Exchequer funding. The demand from DISC and ISHOF must be balanced with the nationwide demand for sports facilities. I have inherited a situation where there are demands for projects worth in excess £465 million for which grants of over £70 million have been sought. These are for facilities throughout the country, whether they be community or club based or sought by governing bodies seeking to upgrade their facilities to meet the demands of today's sportspeople and spectators. My capital budget per year is £6 million, so Senators will appreciate my position in considering a £20 million project. I must balance the valid demands from communities and organisations throughout this country with the demand from DISC and ISHOF for a sports facility in one part of Ireland which would consume huge amounts of money. That is what I am doing at present, but because of the implications for Exchequer funding I am not in a position to say at this stage when a decision about the project can be made.

I have bent over backwards on every occasion to meet DISC and ISHOF. The record shows that I have met them on numerous occasions, as have my staff. The story doing the rounds is that I have not been available to meet them; that is utterly misleading and untrue. The greatest and most detailed consideration and discussion has been given [596] to this proposal. I have all the facts I require; it is now a matter of my making a recommendation.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris  Zoom on David P.B. Norris  I now have a clearer view of the Minister of State's position and his difficulties, with which I sympathise. I have not blackguarded the Minister of State, nor have I listened to allegations and given them credence. However, I ask the Minister to make one opportunity available for even half an hour just to satisfy me. I place a certain amount of credence in the project and some packaging might, perhaps, advance it. Could the Minister meet me some way on this? Some of the figures are slightly different from those quoted by the Minister.

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen  Zoom on Bernard Allen  I have met these two organisations on many occasions for lengthy periods. I will consider the Senator's request because I have received the same request from many of my party colleagues. I have explained the situation to them. The Senator said that there is private sector investment available. I ask anybody who has an offer of private sector investment to come forward and show me their hand. As of now this project is totally dependent on the taxpayers investment. I have set out the requirements I must meet. If private sector funding is available, I am willing to listen.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.50 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 February 1996.

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