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KEVIN BLAKE: What next for the Tipperary Venue?
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KEVIN BLAKE: What next for the Tipperary Venue?
on 16 September 2016
Kevin Blake revisits the history of the ambitious project and asks if the climate might be right to relaunch the venture

IN October 2009, details of one of the most sensational and ambitious projects in recent Irish history were unveiled in the Horse & Jockey Hotel in Tipperary.

It was a project that would attract both excitement and ire in equal measure in the years that followed as it negotiated a series of peaks and troughs in what is an ongoing journey of development. This is the story of the Tipperary Venue.

The €460 million project was to be built on an 800-acre site beside the M8 motorway close to the small village of Two-Mile Borris (population: 500) in rural Tipperary.

It was to be the biggest gaming and leisure facility ever seen in Europe and the largest development since the building of Disneyland Paris in the 1980s.

The feature that attracted the most mainstream media attention was the casino.

Situated within an eight-storey, 80,000 square metre, 500-room, five-star hotel complex that would be four times larger than the next biggest hotel complex in Ireland, the casino would have 100 gaming tables, which was twice as many as the biggest casino in Britain at the time.

This plan attracted so much attention, not just due to the size and scope of it, but also because at the time of the announcement, casinos were illegal in Ireland based on a dated piece of gambling legislation.

While that legislation was in the long process of being rewritten at the time, the new laws were far from guaranteed to allow casinos of the scale of the Tipperary Venue.

Other headline-grabbing features included a 15,000-seater underground entertainment venue with a retractable roof, which would be the biggest indoor arena in Ireland, an 18-hole golf course, a driving range, a chapel and a heliport.

Among the quirkier features of the development was the replica of the White House as it was in 1829, which would be used as a banqueting and wedding reception facility.

This was billed as a memorial to architect James Hoban, a native of nearby Kilkenny, who designed the original White House.

NEW RACECOURSE

However, for the racing world the focus was very much on the racing facilities that the project promised to deliver. The main feature was a Grade 1-standard racecourse that consisted of a mile-and-a-half all-weather track, turf tracks that included separate circuits for flat and National Hunt racing, as well as a straight seven-furlong turf sprint track.

With the racing surface set to be raised a metre above the surrounding terrain during the construction process, the architect behind the project billed the racecourse as being “unfloodable.”

The racecourse would be served by a stand that catered for 5,000 patrons which, thanks to its unique two-sided design, would also act as the stand for a greyhound racing track situated behind the stand. The sport horse world was also well catered for, with plans for an equestrian centre with both indoor and outdoor arenas.

As well as providing a much-needed all-weather track in the southern half of the country, a Grade 1-standard track that could host top-class racing under both codes throughout the calendar year, if required, promised to be a major asset for the racing industry.

Indeed, such racing luminaries as Aidan and Annemarie O’Brien, Johnny Murtagh, and Christy Grassick of Coolmore Stud were all present at the launch of the project to express their support of it. Horse Racing Ireland gave the project its blessing and it also emerged that nearby Thurles Racecourse had agreed to close on completion of the Tipperary Venue.

It was a plan of mind-blowing scale and ambition, one that promised to generate substantial employment and economic activity to a rural area that could never have dreamed of having such a development on their doorstep.

FINANCIAL CRISIS

Yet, its announcement was greeted with widespread scepticism. After all, it came just a year after the global financial crisis had really set in, plunging Ireland and its fabled Celtic Tiger economy into recession.

For many, the notion that anyone would be willing to invest vast sums of money into such an extravagant project in what seemed an obscure location at a time of such economic hardship just seemed too good to be true.

However, for all the scepticism and conspiracy theories that were doing the rounds at the time, it soon became clear that it was far from pie in the sky for the man behind the project, Richard Quirke.

A native of nearby Thurles, Quirke is a former member of An Garda Siochána who had enjoyed great success in business, most publicly with his Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium in Dublin.

PLANNING PERMISSION

At the time the planning permission application was made, Quirke had already reportedly spent €3.5 million on planning fees and invested a further €30 million on land acquisition and other costs from his own pocket to get to that point.

With the publicity-shy Quirke not wishing to play a public role in the promotion of the project, that task was headed up by the local Independent TD Michael Lowry, who was fully behind the project for the benefits he believed it would bring to his constituency.

With Lowry being one of the most controversial figures in Irish politics, his involvement only added to the media frenzy and intrigue surrounding the project.

In addition to Quirke’s personal investment to get the development to the planning stage, it was suggested that the remainder of the €460 million cost of the project would be raised from private investment attracted by the commercial merit of the project, as opposed to relying on loans from financial institutions.

CASINO TROUBLE

With Quirke’s background being in gaming, the pitch for such investment centred on the casino element of the project. While obtaining planning permission was the first obstacle to clear, getting the legislation changed to permit the planned casino was billed as the greatest challenge for the project from the outset.

The first hurdle in the planning process was cleared in October 2010 when North Tipperary County Council granted planning permission, but that decision was quickly appealed by a number of objectors, most notably An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland.

The decision came down to an oral hearing held by An Bord Pleanála held in March 2011 and, despite their own inspector recommending that the planning permission be refused, it was announced in June 2011 that planning permission had been granted for the majority of the development.

The only part of the project that failed to pass was the 15,000-capacity indoor arena, which was considered inappropriate for a rural location.

While work on the site was expected to start before the end of 2011, the project was dealt a hammer blow in September of that year when it was revealed that the government would not be changing the gaming laws to accommodate “resort-style casinos”.

Thus, with the casino element of the project now seemingly dead in the water, not only were the physical plans for the Tipperary Venue thrown into disarray, but the project suddenly became a lot less financially attractive for potential investors.

That might have spelled the end for the project, but it was in the aftermath of that setback that the drive and intention behind the project shone through more brightly than ever.

REVISED PLAN

In May 2012, less than six months after their initial plan had been scuppered, Richard Quirke submitted a significantly revised planning permission application for the site that made up for a lack of a casino and indoor arena with a vastly-increased emphasis on the equestrian side of the project.

The racecourse was extended from an oval to a wider and more sweeping three-sided configuration with a circuit of two miles consisting of separate flat, chase, hurdle and all-weather tracks.

The straight track on the turf was reduced from seven furlongs to six furlongs due to the repositioning of the stand in the new plan, and this meant that the stand was now in the middle of the straight, which, rather uniquely, would allow the option of racing either right or left-handed on the round tracks.

EQUESTRIAN CENTRE

Another substantial change was made to the plans for the equestrian centre.

It was now planned to be a far bigger 35,000 square metres facility consisting of two indoor arenas that could accommodate up to 4,500 spectators.

Also featured were three large outdoor areas with their own individual warm-up areas, a polo field and a cross-country track that makes use of the extensive wooded areas on the site.

In February 2013, planning permission was granted for this new version of the Tipperary Venue, though it received little publicity.

Since then, there have been sporadic statements made by Michael Lowry to the effect that the project remains alive. Neither Lowry nor the architects O’Connell Mahon were available for comment this week but there are reports of increased activity on the site in the past month and a local farmer who has rented land there has been given six months’ notice to move out.

Last week a new 10-minute computer generated video of the proposed facility was posted on YouTube by the architects. Presumably aimed at investors, the video is extremely impressive and claims that the venue will be capable of hosting the World Equestrian Games and the Breeders’ Cup! It really is worth watching.

The video also says there will be a 6,000 square-metre casino included, which is clearly at odds with current legislation.

Whatever one thought of the viability of the plans, no one could deny the ambition behind them. For those in the locality as well as the entire Irish horse racing and sport horse industries, it represented one of the most exciting proposals of recent decades.

Given that so much has already been invested into it and the health of the Irish economy continues to improve to levels far in excess of the state it was in at the time of the original launch, the next chapter of the remarkable story of the Tipperary Venue is eagerly awaited.

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