Tuesday 28 June 2011

Las Vegas comes to Co Tipperary

A casino, a racecourse, a hotel, a heliport, golf, greyhounds – all, it seems, are on their way to Two Mile Borris. So what do the residents of this tiny Tipperary village think of the prospect?

EVERYTHING ABOUT Two Mile Borris, even its name, is modest. It is a tiny community of one street that until this week was best known for winning the All-Ireland senior hurling championship in 1900, a fact commemorated by a curved stone wall in the middle of the Co Tipperary village.
On Monday the biggest news associated with Two Mile Borris in 111 years was announced: that planning permission for a €460-million, 325-hectare development nearby had been granted. The project, headed by the Thurles-born businessman Richard Quirke, will feature a casino, a 500-bedroom hotel, an all-weather racecourse and a replica of the White House. Permission was not granted for an entertainment venue with a retractable roof and a capacity of 15,000.

You can walk the length of Two Mile Borris – or Borris, as the locals call it – in less than a minute. It has a supermarket, two pubs (one with a small grocery attached), a working water pump, a church and a graveyard.

Martina and Martin Heffernan have run the village’s Gala supermarket for six years. When Martina speaks about the development she cannot stop grinning. “The excitement is fantastic. We’ve already had people in here inquiring about jobs,” she says. “If there are hundreds of people who’ll be working on the construction site, they’ll need to eat.” The Gala sells takeaway hot and cold food. “So many people are out of jobs. I had one woman saying to me that if she got a job at the casino she’d be able to go into town again and have her hair done.”

It’s estimated 1,000 jobs will be created during the construction of the complex; 2,000 jobs will be involved in the running of what’s formally known as the Tipperary Venue. “I have no worries about its success at all. I’m sure Mr Quirke has done his research,” Martina says. “And even if the high rollers don’t come, nobody will lose money on it, only Mr Quirke.”

Across the road at Corcoran’s pub, the only negative comment any of the bar’s customers has about the development is that permission was not granted for the entertainment venue.

Nobody there has ever been to a casino. “It’s lots of one-armed bandits, isn’t it?” asks a man who offers only his first name, Phil. “But the casino is only part of it, and I don’t know why the media keep going on about it. Nobody round here is interested in that. What we’re interested in is the racetrack and the equestrian centre. The casino is aimed at foreigners and sheikhs. What I want to know is: will we get in on race day for a tenner, like we do in Thurles?”

THE DEVELOPMENT PLANS also include a greyhound track, an 18-hole golf course, 20 shops, a four-pad heliport and parking for almost 6,000 vehicles. The eight-storey hotel will have a spa, a swimming pool, a cafe, two ballrooms, six shops, four restaurants and two bars. Along with the replica White House – to be known as the Hoban Memorial, after the Washington landmark’s Irish architect, James Hoban – with its banqueting halls, there will be a New England-style wooden chapel, where it is planned that weddings will be held.

An Bord Pleanála’s 77-page inspector’s report, published in April of this year, said of the Hoban Memorial: “It is very difficult not to consider the proposal as being comparable to the landmark features provided in other resorts elsewhere in the world where, to a large extent, they are seen somewhat as gimmicks to attract attention and provide distinctiveness.”

“The White House replica, that’s really about Quirke leaving his own mark on the place,” says Billy Lanigan, who owns Bannon’s bar. Lanigan says that, all in all, he welcomes the news that the development has been approved. His primary focus is on employment prospects, especially in the week that Tipperary discovered it was to lose another 133 jobs with the closure of the Johnson Johnson factory in Cashel.

“It might bring some people back to the area who’ve emigrated,” he says. “But I don’t know where all these people are going to come out of to visit that casino. It’s not for locals. You’d be bound to be wary about the scale of it, but these guys have done their research, and they obviously think it’s going to work.”

“I don’t think Irish people understand what a casino is,” says Paul Breen, one of Lanigan’s customers, who is home from Sydney, where he has lived for several years. Breen regularly goes to casinos in Australia. “A casino is not a gambling house. You go there for a range of entertainment: a show, drinks, dinner, then a game of blackjack or roulette. There’s a private upstairs gaming room for the high rollers, and everyone else is downstairs. But because of where this casino will be, it’s an overnight experience. In my opinion, 500 rooms is not nearly enough. Five thousand rooms would be more like it for a resort casino.”

The Bord Pleanála report summarised Richard Quirke’s justification of his proposal with the following lines: “All the best enterprises, tourist and employment generating schemes are speculative in nature. In a time where the economic outlook is bleak it is considered that the planning system should encourage and endeavour to facilitate all forms of development which are shown to have positive social-economic impacts.”

Nobody The Irish Times spoke to expressed any fear about the casino leading to gambling addiction in the area. Their view almost overwhelmingly was that they’d never been to a casino themselves and that Quirke’s ambitious development was clearly aiming to attract foreigners.

THE SITE OF THE development, less than two kilometres from Two Mile Borris, is a flat green area with a few houses scattered across it, and lines of poplar trees, not far from the new Dublin-Cork motorway. The car park is due to be in the facing field. An Bord Pleanála’s summary of the design concept says that “the board may consider that the scheme would not detract from, but rather improve and add to, the overall visual amenity of what is now a relatively flat, featureless, unpopulated rural landscape”.

Thurles, seven kilometres away, is the closest town to Two Mile Borris; it will be hoping to benefit from the development. “The first thing I have to say is how excited I am about it,” says Liam Campion, a butcher who owns a store in the town’s shopping centre. “It could put Thurles on the map. It could put the whole region on the map. And it means jobs. The only thing is that nobody knows if it’ll be a success or not. What we do know is that it’s not geared towards local people. At the moment, most Irish people can’t even afford to go to the pub.”

“I’m very pleased that the brainchild of our local TD, Michael Lowry, is going to be happening,” says Marion Ryan, who is sitting on a bench outside Dunnes Stores. “A lot of local people are celebrating. Progress has to be welcomed. It’s great for employment, and it’s something different. It’ll be very handy for people in Europe who want to go to Las Vegas. They won’t have to travel to America at all. They can come to Two Mile Borris instead.”

The man betting on Borris

ABOUT THREE YEARS ago, the Independent TD Michael Lowry and the Thurles-born millionaire businessman Richard Quirke met for the first time, in a farmhouse on land owned by Dick O’Connell, near Two Mile Borris. Sitting around the kitchen table over mugs of tea, Quirke outlined his big business idea to Lowry.

He wanted to build a €460-million leisure resort with a casino for high rollers, a golf course, a five-star hotel, dog and horseracing tracks, an indoor concert hall and a replica of the White House.

“My initial reaction was to be sceptical of it,” Lowry recalls. “I was taken aback by the enormity and scale of it all. But what impressed me most was the team Quirke had built around him of very high-reputation companies and individuals. I could see he meant business.”

Nothing much moves in north Tipp without Lowry’s support, and Quirke rightly calculated that he needed the influential TD on board if he was to win over the locals and negotiate the planning process. Lowry was also a useful media frontman for the hugely ambitious – some would say barking-mad – project, which this week cleared a major hurdle by securing a green light from An Bord Pleanála.

Quirke is painfully shy when it comes to the media. He hasn’t given a single meaningful interview to the fourth estate about the so-called Tipperary Venue since details of it first emerged, in 2008. All he has offered are some soundbites to RTÉ and TV3. Several public-information and planning meetings have been held in the well-known Horse Jockey hotel, but Quirke has tended to sit at the side of the stage and let others do his bidding.

Quirke is invariably described by those who have dealt with him as a quiet, reserved man.Lowry describes him as businesslike, very ambitious and innovative.

Quirke gave a rare insight into his early days in business in a 1992 interview with the journalist Ursula Halligan for the Sunday Tribune, explaining why a substantial proportion of the profits from Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium would go to fund a transcendental-meditation centre at the former Richmond Hospital in central Dublin.

“Prior to 1982” – when he took up transcendental meditation – “I was probably 80 per cent dishonest in my dealings with other people. I mean, if I did a deal with you, and it was on a 50-50 basis, I wouldn’t be happy unless I got the lion’s share of 80-20 in my favour. I had no conscience. It didn’t bother me in the slightest.

“I would be at Mass on Sunday and I would stand up and sit down, stand up and sit down, as need be. But I would be plotting and scheming as to how I could rip off people during the rest of the week.”

Quirke declined to elaborate on those quotes when they were put to his public-relations adviser, Valerie O’Reilly, earlier this week.

Quirke was born in Thurles in November 1946 to Dan and Theresa Quirke. He has three sisters, Olive, Mary and Geralyn. His father was caretaker at the local greyhound track. Life was tough in Thurles in those days; the family grew up in “hard times”, says one local.

Quirke went to school at Thurles CBS, then became a garda. It was while he was on the beat in Dublin that he is said to have gained an insight into gaming and amusement arcades. In 1976 he set up a company called Dublin Pool and Juke Box Ltd, a holding entity for all his arcade activities, with an address in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Although he is best known today for Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium, on O’Connell Street, Quirke is said by those who know him to have operated arcade and slot machines “everywhere from Donegal to Kerry” over the past 35 years.

Dr Quirkey’s has proved to be a money-making machine, although the latest accounts show it has not been immune to the recession. Abridged accounts, which provide only partial financial information, show that Dublin Pool and Juke Box Ltd made a profit of €1.5 million in the 12 months to the end of June 2010. This was roughly a third of the profit of the previous year. The company had accumulated profits of €16.7 million at the year end.

Dublin Pool and Juke Box is also being used to buy land for the casino complex. The accounts show that it spent €6.7 million on “tangible fixed assets”.

Just how much Quirke is worth is a mystery. He is wealthy, but you will never see him feature in any rich list. He and his wife, Anne, were paid a generous €994,003 as directors of Dublin Pool and Juke Box last year, and €1.1 million in 2009.

It has been widely reported that he made more than €30 million some years ago from selling properties at the Carlton cinema site on O’Connell Street to the property developer Joe O’Reilly. Quirke originally pitched the Carlton site in a tendering process in the 1990s for a national convention centre. The competition was scrapped after a change of government in 1997.

Quirke subsequently became embroiled in a legal dispute with Dublin City Council over the Carlton site. The local authority wanted it developed as part of O’Connell Street’s regeneration and slapped a compulsory purchase order on the land. Quirke sold the site to O’Reilly, whose plan to build a retail complex was credit-crunched.

One former senior official at the council described Quirke as “not easy to deal with” and “single-minded”.

In addition to the arcades, Quirke has an extensive property portfolio. These include a number of sites in Dublin, the former Erin Foods factory in Co Tipperary and the old NEC Semiconductors plant in Co Meath, which he put on the market for €5.5 million.

He has access to a €3 million Sikorsky helicopter, held through a company he jointly owns, called Heli Med Ltd. And he is reported to have paid €5 million for his family home in Cabinteely, Co Dublin, shared with his wife and four children. One son, Wesley, is dating the former Miss World Rosanna Davison; the other, Andy, has made a name for himself posting videos on YouTube.

Quirke is estimated to have spent about €3.5 million on planning fees and charges to North Tipperary County Council, and about €30 million in total on land acquisition and other costs.

Michael Lowry has said that Quirke is committed to shelling out another €28 million of his own money on the next phase of the Tipperary Venue project, which will involve servicing the land.

Locals say Quirke has told them that no bank debt will be associated with the casino project. International investors are expected to back the project, possibly including a large international casino operator. All of this detail has been kept under wraps, and many people question the viability of the project.

This week’s planning approval was a major step forward for Quirke. But his huge punt will ultimately require a change in gambling legislation. Quirke has rolled the dice, but it could be a couple of years before he discovers if his expensive bet has paid off. Ciarán Hancock

Slot machines, poker, roulette, blackjack A morning at Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium

Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium, the amusement arcade on O’Connell Street in Dublin, is Richard Quirke’s best-known business.

By 11am one morning this week, an hour after it had opened, upwards of 100 people were inside. At the front of the emporium were slot machines and cranes that dispensed coins, stuffed toys and trinkets to winners. Farther back were hundreds of fruit machines and other amusements, featuring video games, poker, roulette and blackjack, among other games.

The deeper you went, the dimmer the place became. The lighting was red and blue neon, and the carpet had an old-fashioned pattern. Upstairs were ranks of pool tables.

Boys in school uniform played poker, women with babies in buggies operated two slot machines simultaneously, and a group of Asian men huddled over roulette tables. Everyone was intensely focused and silent.

The emporium has been associated with some notorious customers, including the victim in the “Scissor Sisters” murder of 2005, the Kenyan man Farah Swaleh Noor, who was beheaded.

The Chinese man Yu Jie, who was found guilty of murdering two Chinese women, in 2001, and burning their bodies, frequently played blackjack at the emporium. The court heard from his former employer that Jie had told her on one occasion that he had lost €1,000 in a single session.

Irish Times


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