The company behind the city’s jinxed arthouse cinema signed a €4.1 million public works contract with a construction firm without departmental consent, placing taxpayers on the hook for a budget overrun of up to €2 million.
The project has been plagued by setbacks and controversy since work first began on a site donated by Galway City Council at Lower Merchants Road in 2009.
The development of the three-screen cultural cinema has been overseen by Solas Galway Picture Palace Limited, a private company afforded charitable status, with government funding provided through five separate public bodies.
The Galway City Tribune has obtained correspondence between Solas, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and other stakeholders under the Freedom of Information Act; providing a new insight into the chaotic events surrounding the project.
It reveals that Solas signed a binding contract for the completion of the cinema with JJ Rhatigan & Co in March 2012 without seeking the consent of the Department and without having funds in place to cover the cost.
The issue was raised in a letter from then-Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan to the Solas Chairperson Lelia Doolan on June 21, 2012.
“The Board of Solas did not have this Department’s consent to sign the contract with JJ Rhatigan & Co as it was required to and… funding has not been set aside to cover payments,” wrote Minister Deenihan.
In her response issued the following day, Ms Doolan replied: “I understand and appreciate the points you make. I would, however, wish to reiterate that we acted in good faith in the matter of issuing the binding letter of consent and in going to contract.”
Solas was advised that the Department would refuse to release additional funding of €2.1 million unless the company could demonstrate that it had sufficient resources to bring the project to completion without further recourse to public funds.
Ms Doolan wrote to public representatives in Galway two weeks later, warning them in an email on July 5, 2012 that “to discontinue now will involve the loss of over €4 million of public monies with ancillary consequences”.
The following day, Taoiseach Enda Kenny attended the construction site during a visit to Galway. Ms Doolan wrote to public representatives again later that day, advising them that she had issued a similar warning to Mr Kenny.
“We conveyed to him the urgency of the situation and our belief that . . . were a termination to occur now, the employment, political, financial and legal consequences would be severe and far more costly than finishing the job,” she wrote.
“That €4m of public monies spent and nothing to show for it but a hole in the ground . . . is an unacceptable prospect.”
Ms Doolan noted in her email that the Taoiseach had raised the question of Solas having signed a contract with the construction firm without departmental consent during his visit.
“That canard that we had proceeded without permission may have some shaky legal legs but is morally unsound,” she stated.
Relations with Minister Deenihan appear to have deteriorated in the following months, however, as Ms Doolan described in an email to Solas Project Manager Tracy Geraghty on August 17 how he “flew into a rage” and shouted at her during a telephone conversation.
“He flew into a rage and accused me of misrepresenting him and shouted at length about wanting the work to succeed, his being good enough to take phone calls, never again meeting without an official present etc – no word in edgeways from me was possible,” she wrote.
The same email reveals that the Department had expressed a desire to impose a new project manager representing the funders as early as 2012. This was resisted by Ms Doolan, but project management was ultimately taken over by Galway City Council last year.
She stated in her email that the imposition of a project manager “would be a sticking point for us” and claimed that Solas were “being treated as though we were major transgressors”.
The matter of signing the contract with JJ Rhatigan & Co without consent again arose, with Ms Doolan observing that “they criticised us for going to contract without their approval and yet thought nothing of spending our contracted monies without notifying us”.
The budget for the development of the Picture Palace was originally set at €6.2 million, which was sourced in full from the Department, Galway City Council, the Irish Film Board, the Western Development Commission and the Arts Council.
The original contract for the building project was awarded to Cordil Construction in 2009. However, the company went into receivership in May 2011 and work on the cinema ceased.
Ms Doolan noted in correspondence with public representatives that, at this point, the site was “relatively untouched, the piling for the first stage of building scarcely begun”.
A house neighbouring the construction site was accidentally damaged during this period and Solas agreed to knock and rebuild the residence at a cost of €500,000, which was included in the contract with JJ Rhatigan & Co.
Last August, it was announced that the Department would provide an additional €735,000 for the completion of the project, along with a further investment of €232,000 by Galway City Council.
The correspondence obtained by the Galway City Tribune reveals that the departmental funding was made conditional on Galway City Council assuming responsibility for project management.
Solas indicated that it would provide a comment in relation to the correspondence two weeks ago but had not done so at the time of publication.
Galway City Council turns down Mad Yolk Farm site
An application to retain farming-related development on a site in Roscam has been turned down by Galway City Council.
The local authority has refused to grant retention permission to applicant Brian Dilleen for subsurface piping to be used for agricultural irrigation at ‘Mad Yolk Farm’ on Rosshill Road.
It also refused permission for the retention of a bore-hole well, water pump and concrete plinth; and two water holding tanks for 6,500 litres; and other associated site works.
In its written decision, the Planning Department at City Hall said: “The proposed development, would if permitted, facilitate the use of the site for the provision of sixty 15.5m high seed beds, which have been deemed by the planning authority not to be exempted development.
“Therefore a grant of permission for the proposed development would facilitate the unauthorised development and usage on the site, contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.”
The site has been the subject of enforcement action by the local authority.
A lengthy Appropriate Assessment Screening report, submitted with the planning application, concluded “beyond reasonable scientific doubt, in view of the best scientific knowledge, on the basis of objective information and in light of the conservation objectives of the relevant European sites, that the proposed retention and development, individually or in combination with other plans and projects, has not and will not have a significant effect on any European site”.
A borehole Impact Assessment Report concluded that the proposed retention development “on the hydraulic properties of the aquifer is considered negligible”.
It said that there was “no potential for significant effects on water quality, groundwater dependent habitats or species associated with any European site”.
Six objections were lodged by neighbours, including one from the Roshill/Roscam Residents Association, which argued the Further Information submitted by the applicant did “little to allay our concerns” about the impact of the development on an “extremely sensitive site”.
The applicant has until June 29 to appeal the decision to An Bórd Pleanála.
NUIG student accommodation firm records loss
The property company which operates student accommodation on behalf of NUI Galway recorded a €3.4 million increase in turnover in 2019.
However, Atalia Student Residences DAC (Designated Activity Company), which is owned by the university, recorded a loss for the year of €6,300.
Accounts for the company for the year ended August 31, 2019, show that while there was a loss, retained profits are at more than €1.6 million. The accounts are the most up to date available from the Companies Registration Office.
The previous year, the company made a profit of more than €460,000.
Atalia Student Residences operates the 764-bed Corrib Village apartment complex and the 429-bed Goldcrest Village.
The figures show that the company’s overall turnover jumped by 52% – from €6.4m to €9.8m.
Turnover for accommodation services was up from €5.2m to €8.4m; and from conferences and events was up from €850,000 to €1.1m. Turnover from shops was down from almost €328,000 to €290,000.
Outside of the academic year, both complexes are used as accommodation for conference delegates, while Corrib Village is also used for short-term holiday lets.
The accounts show fixed assets – including fixtures and fittings, plant and machinery and office equipment – valued at €1.5m. Its current assets were valued at more than €7m, including ‘cash at bank and in hand’ of almost €6.9m (up from €5.6m last year).
The company owed creditors €6.9m, including €5.2m in deferred income.
It employed 38 people (which includes its five directors) last year, up from 31 the previous year.
As well as operating the student accommodation complexes, the company also markets conference facilities and services on behalf of the university.
It pays rent to NUIG but the figure is not included in the company accounts. In 2018, the rent figure was just over €2.25m.
In Corrib Village, a single bedroom with a private en suite for the academic year costs €5,950. For Goldcrest Village, the figure is €6,760.
Call for two-way cycling under Galway City outdoor dining plan
Bike users want the local authority to examine the introduction of two-way cycling on one-way city centre streets.
Galway Cycling Campaign has again called for cycling to be allowed both ways. It comes as Galway City Council prepares to cordon-off parts of city centre streets to traffic, and make Dominick Street Lower one-way, to facilitate outdoor dining.
The cycling organisation said that the proposed pedestrianisation plan at the Small Crane, and the one-way system on Dominick Street, will result in lengthy diversions for people on bikes.
It has pointed out that school children and their guardians who cycle along Raleigh Row, and turn right towards Sea Road, will probably continue to do so even when the Small Crane is cordoned off to traffic, because the alternative route – via Henry Street – is too long a detour.
Similarly, it has been suggested that food-delivery services on bikes are unlikely to go the ‘long way round’ via Mill Street and New Road to get from Bridge Mills to restaurants on Dominick Street and would be tempted to cycle the ‘wrong way’ down the proposed one-way street or on the footpath.
Shane Foran, committee member of Galway Cycling Campaign, said now would be an ideal time to introduce two-way cycling on some one-way streets.
“It’s not controversial,” insisted Mr Foran. “It’s a general principle in other countries, if you are putting in new traffic arrangements, you would try and keep access for people on bikes.”
The regulation is contained in the National Cycle Policy Framework 2009; and a specific objective was contained in two of the most recent previous City Development Plans.
He said a former minister and Galway West TD, the late Bobby Molloy, had the vision to change the legislation in the late 1990s – but it hasn’t yet been embraced here.
“Bobby Molloy, who couldn’t be classed as an eco warrior, changed the law in 1998, so that it is available to local authorities to put up a sign granting an exemption from restrictions for people cycling on one-way streets.
“The road stays one-way for cars, and two ways for bicycles. Clearly that’s not going to be a sensible to do everywhere, like Merchants’ Road. In those situations, you might need a cycle track or lane to segregate people from traffic.
“But if it’s a low traffic street, with low speeds or relatively lower volumes of cars, then it should be possible for people on bicycles to cycle in both directions and still have it one-way for cars, without it being a major safety issue. It works in other countries,” said Mr Foran.