To buy or not to buy: Councillors’ opinions on brewery site

With members of Kilkenny Borough and County Councils due to meet on May 8 about a proposed purchase of Diageo’s St Francis Abbey Brewery site for €2.1 million, we asked the 12 members of the Borough Council for their opinions on the matter.

With members of Kilkenny Borough and County Councils due to meet on May 8 about a proposed purchase of Diageo’s St Francis Abbey Brewery site for €2.1 million, we asked the 12 members of the Borough Council for their opinions on the matter.

Each was asked whether they were in favour of or against the councils’ purchasing the site for €2.1 million; whether they were in favour of or opposed to the idea of scrapping the Central Access Scheme (CAS) bridge and using that money to purchase the site instead of taking out a loan of €1.3 million; and what they would like to see done with the site.

Mayor David Fitzgerald said he was in favour of the councils’ purchasing the site, but not in favour of doing away with the Central Access Scheme bridge to use that money for the purchase. Regarding the future of the brewery site, he said: “The first step is to engage in a public debate, and with that in mind I hope to hold a town-hall meeting in late May to discuss the future of the site and other sites in the city.”

Martin Brett said he was in favour of the councils’ purchasing the Diageo site for €2.1 million. He is against using the CAS money to do it, however. “The Central Access Scheme is already been passed, so leave it alone. It has gone through An Bord Pleanála and everything else, so we shouldn’t change it,” he said. As for what use the site should be put to in future years, he said he wasn’t sure at the moment, but he said he was certain of one thing: “We will be in charge of it rather than having some outside developer coming into it.”

John Coonan said that the opportunity to purchase the site was one not to be missed. He rejected the suggestion that the Central Access Scheme should be sidelined to free up funds. “The CAS is an integral part of this development,” he said. As to what should ultimately be developed on the site, Cllr Coonan said that it must be something that would not clash with city centre retail. “Clearly what we want is something very special,” he said. “An institutional development, an educational development or a technical development maybe – something to add to our attractiveness as a city. The historical aspect of the site would have to be developed too.”

Paul Cuddihy said he did not want to speculate before the councils meet on May 8. “I am going to the meeting and there is no point in having an opinion poll (beforehand),” he said. He also would not be drawn on the suggestion to use CAS funding to purchase the site. He did offer several suggestions for how the site should be developed in the future, however: “One, I think we can use it for river-based activities at the riverside. Two, we can develop the St Francis Abbey Brewery as a tourist site. Three, we can work with Guinness to ensure that whatever they are offering – as with the Hop Store in Dublin, which is the number one tourist attraction – we would hope that that would help all the businesses on Parliament Street and beyond in Kilkenny. And four, we don’t need more houses and we don’t need more shops. If it were up to me, I would try and have either new jobs or perhaps a faculty of a university for the South East.”

Marie Fitzpatrick said she was very much in favour of the councils’ purchasing the brewery site. On whether or not the Central Access Scheme should be sidelined to free up money for the purchase, the Labour councillor said she didn’t know and would have to give the idea some thought. Regarding the future of the site, she said that there would have to be public consultation: “I think that it should be developed so that it will be an amenity or tourist attraction in the city,” she said. “I’m sure that the Watergate Theatre and the residents of the area would have to be consulted also.”

Kathleen Funchion said she was “definitely” in favour of the councils’ purchasing the brewery site. On whether the CAS money should be used for the purchase instead of taking out a loan, she said: “I would be open to looking at it, at least. I do think we should look at it and see if it’s a possibility. I wouldn’t rule it out.” On future uses for the site, she said that whatever goes into the site should be the result of public consultation on the matter. “It is really important that we do some sort of consultation that people can feed into, and the workers in the brewery should have a chance to feed into that consultation process as well.” She said she would also like for the future plans to include an education element.

Joe Malone said he would support the purchase of the site. He said that he had never voiced his support for the Central Access Scheme, and that there “could be some merit” in scrapping or delaying the construction of the new bridge, to use the funding for purchasing the site. As regards future development of the St Francis Abbey site, Cllr Malone said that any decision should have full public approval. “It is up to the people to decide,” he said. “I don’t think it should be a retail or shopping centre, but the people should have their say.”

Betty Manning said she was in favour of the idea of the councils’ purchasing the site, but said that she would reserve her decision until the council members are supplied with further details at their up-coming meeting. “It is of huge importance to the city,” she said. Likewise she said she did not want to speculate on using CAS money to fund a purchase of the site. “We need to hear what the (county) manager has in store for us. We don’t know any of the details around the purchase or what has been said between the manager and Diageo,” she said. As for what she hopes will be done with the site, she said: “The sky is the limit.” She said she expected that there would be a tourist element and possibly a micro-brewery, and that “it does need some commercial activity as well.” “I would like to see something that will complement what’s already on the main streets.”

Andrew McGuinness is in favour of the councils’ purchasing the site for €2.1 million. “I would have loved to see them taking up Joe Reidy’s proposal to offer it for free, but obviously that is not going to happen,” he said. Cllr McGuinness said he would not support any compromise to the Central Access Scheme bridge, which he described as “vital” to the city. He feels that the site could be used for a Norman “cultural centre” with an education museum or related business. “The thing I don’t want to see happening to the site is any commercial units or housing,” he said. “Whatever happens, we must retain and take advantage of the site’s historical value to Kilkenny.”

Malcolm Noonan said, on whether the councils should purchase the site for €2.1 million: “I haven’t got any costings in terms of remediation of the site or its future use, so I would be very cautious about it. If we do want to control what development will take place there in the future, we have the power under zoning. We have quite a significant amount of properties, including St Mary’s Church, that we want to develop as well, and while it is a great opportunity, I do think that we need to take a cautious approach to it. We could have the same impact without spending a penny because we have the ability to zone it.” On whether the CAS money should be used rather than a loan, he said: “I think if we are to proceed with the purchase, the only way it could be done is if we don’t have to borrow money for it. We have €1.2 million in our own coffers from development contributions and I think this opportunity should be to consolidate the real core of the city, and the Central Access Scheme has on place in that.” On what should be done with the site, he said: “It should have a good mix of social infrastructure, be it a community park; an element of retail, but planned very carefully; and perhaps some start-up units specifically for clean-tech, IT or cultural-based industries.” He suggested that the old industrial plant could be used for an art college, as has happened at sites in the UK.

Seán Ó hArgáin said he had not fully made up his mind as yet, but that the offer to purchase the site merited serious consideration. “I think at that price we would be very foolish not to consider it strongly,” he said. Cllr Ó hArgáin said that future plans for the site would have to take into account housing projections and the review of the city centre retail strategy. “We have to look very carefully at every option,” he said. “I think ultimately it should be a mix of retail and residential accommodation. We need to preserve the integrity of the city, and to ensure the area will become part of the extended city centre.” The Labour councillor feels that the bridge construction should go ahead, and that securing a loan for the brewery site will not present a problem. “I have been in favour of the Central Access Scheme in the past, and haven’t seen anything yet that would change that,” he said.

Joe Reidy, who originally tabled a Borough Council motion proposing that Diageo give the site to the city for a nominal amount, said he stood by his initial request. “I am happy that they have offered it to us, but €2.1 million is just a drop in the ocean for Diageo,” he said. “I still feel that they should give it to Kilkenny for a nominal sum.” Cllr Reidy said he would not be in favour of getting rid of the CAS bridge, as he feels the scheme would be integral to any development of the site. As regards the site’s future, he said he could envisage the development of a “cultural” quarter, possibly to include some sort of city museum, extension of the Watergate Theatre, or river tourist attraction.