€650,000 already spent by council on Arts Centre project

Clive Nesbitt

Reporter:

Clive Nesbitt

Email:

clive@alphanewspapers.co.uk

ON the day campaigners for an Arts Centre in Tullamore mounted a demonstration at the headquarters of Offaly County Council, the council chief executive said €651,000 had already been spent by the local authority on the project.

Councillors were also told Sally O’Leary, the council’s arts officer, has joined the Arts Centre board.

Anna Marie Delaney was speaking at a meeting of the council on Monday after an Action Group for the Tullamore Community Arts Centre lobbied councillors as they entered Aras an Chontae at lunchtime.

The group issued a statement to councillors urging them to ensure the council commits the necessary funding to support the project without further delay.

The spokesperson for the Action Group is Fionnuala Corrigan, a former Arts Centre board member who has resigned her position.

Ms Delaney told councillors that an extra €500,000 in Government funding is still being sought for the centre and meetings had taken place with Culture Minister Josepha Madigan TD.

“We didn’t get a ‘no’ to that particular request,” said Ms Delaney.

Depending on the scale of the centre, which is to be located in the former Kilroy’s store on the western side of High Street, Tullamore, it could cost between €3.1 million and €3.6 million.

The fate of the project now appears to hinge on an Arts Centre decision in relation to a new business case which is required under the public spending code.

A grant of €2 million was sanctioned back in 2008 but Ms Delaney said on Monday criteria will have to be met for that funding to be drawn down.

The council has another €200,000 from an urban generation fund and that has been earmarked for work on Meath Lane, an access point off High Street.

A total of €180,000 was raised from the community by the sale of tickets at €100 each in a major draw but Ms Delaney repeated a statement she made a month ago that further community fundraising will be required.

Crucially, she agreed with the Action Group that the County Council will have to commit funds to the centre on an annual basis and said that would be a matter for the elected members.

Asked by the Tribune before the meeting how much would be required from the council, Ms Corrigan said Laois County Council gave between €120,000 and €125,000 to the Dunamaise Arts Centre each year and Westmeath committed similar funding to arts facilities in Mullingar and Athlone.

She urged Offaly to do the same, saying the centre would rejuvenate and regenerate Tullamore and the county and attract inward investment.

“My issue all of the time, why in Offaly do we have to struggle so hard and these projects take so long?” asked Ms Corrigan.

In addition to supporting the Dunamaise, Laois had “done up Mountmellick arts centre” and developed a “fabulous” facility at Stradbally Arts House between themselves and the Arts Council.

“They’ve gone about it properly,” said Ms Corrigan. “I resigned from the board because I believed the board did not have the expertise that is needed to make the cases that are needed by the Department in today’s climate.”

She said the council had “lost” and “wasted” money by not proceeding with the Arts Centre earlier.

The original plan was to locate it at Kilbride Plaza but that proposal was abandoned because of a cost overrun. “If Offaly County Council had really taken the commitment seriously at the start there would be an Arts Centre here in town and the investment would have been made.”

She called for a clear commitment from the council with clear timelines, adding: “They have a statutory obligation to develop the arts in this county and that’s what’s needed”.

She said she was on the centre board when it submitted a previous business plan to the Department of Culture about a year ago.

“That business plan was rejected and I believe the reason it was rejected was because there wasn’t sufficient commitment from Offaly County Council to the ongoing funding of the centre,” stated Ms Corrigan.

When the council sat down for its meeting on Monday afternoon, a procedural row erupted when Cllr Dervill Dolan asked why the Arts Centre was not on the agenda.

Cllr Dolan said it had been agreed at a meeting of the Tullamore Municipal District that a presentation would be made to the full council by the Arts Centre board.

Cllr Danny Owens, Cathaoirleach, said the matter would be discussed later when the chief executive addressed the meeting.

Cllr Dolan, Independent councillor for the Tullamore Area, said it had been agreed to hear a presentation so “we’d actually know exactly what’s going on there”.

When Cllr Owens said the matter would be dealt with “at a later stage” and there was “no particular reason” for not putting it on the agenda, Cllr Dolan said the concern outside the council was that “it’s not a serious enough political issue for us to deal with” and he reminded the Cathaoirleach that he was a member of the board himself.

Cllr Tony McCormack, Fianna Fail, and a member of the Arts Centre board, revealed that a decision had been taken at the last board meeting not to come before the council because “there were a couple of figures and different parts of the plan that are kind of up in the air at the moment and they don’t want to come in front of the council and make a presentation that’s not 100 per cent.”

Cllr McCormack said the board would be making the presentation later, now that they had met the Department’s requirements for more information.

Another councillor member of the board, Cllr Declan Harvey, chair of the Tullamore Municipal District, said he was disappointed the presentation was not being made but he agreed with Cllr McCormack.

“I’m hoping they will be here for the April meeting and I’ve been talking to the [Arts Centre] chairman about this,” said Cllr Harvey.

Another Fianna Fail member, Cllr Frank Moran, took issue with the minutes of the council meeting from February and said they did not reflect his proposal that a deputation from the Arts Centre make a presentation to the March meeting. Cllr Owens told him he had not received a seconder for his proposal.

In her address to councillors and following questioning by Cllr Dolan, Ms Delaney said there will be an ongoing budgetary requirement from the council for the proposed Arts Centre.

In relation to capital funding, she said while the council had not been successful in an application under the Urban Regeneration fund, “we are exploring all funding streams that are available to us.”

“We have impressed on the Minister the need to progress this application in a speedy manner and she had acknowledged same, due to the fact that construction inflation costs are increasing at the rate of about seven per cent per annum,” said the council chief.

The Department has assigned a case officer to the project and at local level, Ms Delaney said arts officer Sally O’Leary will provide some of the expertise the board requires.

Cllr Owens said the board had been in existence for 16 years and he had only been on it for two.

“Nobody is any more frustrated than the people on the board,” he remarked.

He said the council had been previously “ready to go to tender” for the project but could not do so because of a lack of funding.

He rejected Cllr Dolan’s claim that the question of funding had not been discussed by the council, saying it had been discussed “in committee” (in private) at a meeting of the Tullamore Municipal District.

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