PORTLAOISE GAA club are resigned to losing their premises on Fr Browne Avenue in the town this year, ultimately brought about by the collapse of a development deal after An Bord Pleanála refused planning permission for the site and the plummeting property market.
The club have been left in serious debt after receiving a €6,500,000 advance on the planned sale of the original site, used to purchase new premises at Rathleague.
Nonetheless the club remains optimistic now the new Rathleague premises is ready for use and expected to open in March, although there are virtually no funds to develop it beyond a set of pitches and temporary accommodation.
Club treasurer John Hanniffy has been involved in the project since its inception over six years ago. He says much will depend on how the development partners decide to proceed.
“We’re waiting on instructions from the Firestone (the original development partners) and AIB (which lent the company the advance money) perspective as to what exactly they want us to do. Re-applying for planning permission is costly and it wouldn’t make sense for us to sell the ground unless someone actually said ‘this is what we want you to do’.
“I think there’s probably a realisation from all sides that a sale in the morning wouldn’t achieve anything for anyone. In that respect it’s a waiting game.
“As a club I think we’re resigned to the fact that we’re going to lose what we have at least for no further gain so it’s going to be the pitches we have in Rathleague and a couple of Portacabins for the foreseeable future. It leaves a sour taste but in some respects you could say that it could be worse as well.”
The difficulties for the club began when the old grounds behind O’Moore Park in Portlaoise were sold and they moved to a venue more than twice the size two kilometres away. The deal was with the Cork development company Firestone but it depended on both projects – a proposed shopping centre as well as the new club grounds – going ahead at the same time.
Although the Firestone development was approved by Laois county council and included in the county development plan, it was appealed to An Bord Pleanála.
Fearing at the time the Rathleague site would be sold to other bidders, the club were anxious to go ahead with the purchase and on the basis the project was “80 per cent likely” to succeed at An Bórd Pleanála, €6,500,000 was advanced to the club from Firestone and used to purchase the new site.
Unfortunately for the club, An Bórd Pleanála found against the proposal in December 2008.
Firestone pulled the plug on the project in early 2009, leaving the club €6,500,000 in debt and in possession of a property rapidly losing value in the disintegrating market and without planning permission.
Continuing to occupy the old ground pending a decision on the debt to Firestone, Portlaoise expect to move soon and hope to come to an agreement with their former partners.
In the meantime, according to Hanniffy, the crisis for the club has had some unexpected effects on a community that has tended to reflect the more arms-length involvement, characteristic of urban clubs, rather than the rural experience.
“We needed pitches to facilitate the increase in population, which has doubled from 7,000 to 14,000 in less than 25 years and is expected to double again by 2020. No, the current situation’s not what we envisaged but look at the positive side.
“A dad’s army has turned out to help us cut grass, pull up weeds and build fences. A sponsor lent us some dumpers and 20 people turned up to help shift topsoil. Local farmers came in to level the ground. People have given up their time to try and get the club back on its feet. We’ve raised funds and members have taken out loans.”
There will be an event to raise funds for the club in 10 days. A debate, 2020 Vision: The Future of the GAA, will be hosted by Portlaoise GAA club on Friday week, January 21st. RTÉ’s Marty Morrissey will compere the evening and guests will include Liam Griffin, Michael Duignan, Pat McEnaney and Liam O’Neill.
“The impact of the downturn in the economy and the property collapse on the club has been well documented nationally,” according to a media release from Portlaoise, “as the club struggles to develop its new facilities and deal with the financial implications of the collapse of the sale of its existing facilities beside O’Moore Park in Portlaoise.”