‘It’s a huge loss to the town. It has been lost, as far as I’m concerned, by the council.” – Cllr Noel Tuohy and chairperson of the Portlaoise Leisure Centre Board of Management.
By Joe Barrett.
TEMPERS boiled over at last Wednesday’s meeting of councillors from the Portlaoise Municipal District over the news the previous day that Portlaoise Leisure Centre had closed with immediate effect.
Commencing the debate over the closure the Director of Services at Laois County Council Simon Walton said: “Everyone regrets the decision of the board of directors of the leisure centre to apply for the company to be put into liquidation. The board has overseen the operations of the centre under licence to the council since 2012. Laois County Council is the owner of the centre. The council is very anxious that the public investment in the centre will continue to be available for the general benefit of all.
“The council will be acting immediately to seek to ensure that they can identify new arrangements whereby the facility can be a viable entity.
The events do not mean that the leisure centre is closed for good. It is a case now of identifying a suitable entity to come in and to operate the facility. The council will seek to see that the facility is reopened as quickly as possible. In the meantime, there are certain enhancements that the council is committed to supporting from a capital expenditure point of view. Those works will proceed over the coming weeks.”
Cathaoirleach of the Municipal District cllr John Joe Fennelly said that not alone would the closure affect people in Portlaoise but also schools in Spink, Raheen, Ballyroan and Abbeyleix.
‘By his figures we needed €300,000 just to bring us up to Christmas.’
Cllr Noel Tuohy, who was also the chairperson of the Portlaoise Leisure Centre Board of Management, said: “We were very badly hit by the pandemic. There was very little if any money coming in. We applied to the council four times for money. We went from one meeting to another until eventually we met the Director of Services Donal Brennan. By his figures we needed €300,000 just to bring us up to Christmas. He said he hadn’t the money nor had the Government to give us. So we asked him, what do we do? He said, I don’t know, but you need €300,000 to keep it going. That’s exactly what he said. He then mentioned a figure of €500,000, bringing Portarlington (Leisure Centre) into it.
“ On Monday (the day before the announcement of the closure of the centre) the full board had a meeting with the (council’s) CEO John Mulholland and Donal Brennan. Same thing applied, he said he hadn’t the money to give us.
“Our advice was that we would be guilty, if we continued on as we were going, it would have been reckless trading. Our advice was to bring in a liquidator. We had a meeting with the staff and were informed of what their entitlements were. It was a sad evening. It’s a huge loss to the town. It has been lost, as far as I’m concerned by the council.”
‘You can lay blame until the cows come home, but we have to look forward and find solutions.’
Cllr Thomasina Connell, also a board member of the Portlaoise Leisure Centre said: “It has been a very, very challenging number of weeks. We knew if there was no money in the bank, no money to pay bills and no money to pay staff that it would be reckless trading. If we continued trading we would all have been found personable liable for debts accrued. The company is now wound up and the keys have been handed back or are being handed back to Laois County Council, our landlords. You can lay blame until the cows come home, but we have to look forward and find solutions. I want to know are people in this community serious about supporting the leisure centre? Because glossy private enterprises are being promoted and people want to go to them instead. When, and not if it reopens, I’m asking people in our community to support it. All those people who commented on social media (over the closure) I wonder how many of those people actually walked in the door of the facility?
“I want to also sympathise with the 30 people who lost their jobs who we met for three hours. It was extremely distressing. But I’m hoping that there is a future for them. There is absolutely a future for a leisure centre in Portlaoise.”
Cllr Catherine Fitzgerald who is also a board member of the centre said: “I went on the board last June and at that time I had concerns with the finances and other things. It got worse. Covid really put the tin hat on it. I too want to express my sadness over the staff losing their jobs. Many have worked there for years and a few since day one.
‘It’s a huge amenity for Portlaoise and for the county.’
“There’s been a huge public investment in the actual building. It would be a crying shame for us as public representatives not to go and to try and reopen the centre. It can be a viable entity and business. It’s a huge amenity for Portlaoise and for the county. People who have paid their membership will be reimbursed. Council management has guaranteed us and the CEO that the pitches and the playground will remain open. It is the actual building pool and gym that has been closed.”
Cllr Mary Sweeney said: “I sincerely wish and hope that it gets back on its feet again and that a solution is found.”
Cllr Caroline Dwane Stanley said: “It’s a very sad and a bad day for the staff and for the community.
“For me, this is privatisation through the back door on behalf of Laois County Council at management level. I think it’s a cop out on their behalf. It’s disgraceful the way they have allowed this situation to happen. There was €12 million of public funds spent on that building.
“Last year cllr Aidan Mullins raised the fact that this private entity had looked to look at the books of both Portarlington and Portlaoise Leisure Centres. As a board member of the centre in Portarlington at the time he (cllr Mullins) refused to allow them to see the books. You could clearly see what was happening.”
‘Three years without a manager. No wonder it’s gone down the tubes.’
Cllr Dwane Stanley said that has been over three years since there has been a manager overseeing the centre in Portlaoise. “That position in my view should have been advertised. Somebody should have gone in to manage that facility.Three years without a manager. No wonder it’s gone down the tubes. If I am correct, some of the staff told me that the Director of Services didn’t even show up to their meeting when they were being sacked.”
She said: “We sacked 30 people and the person who could have answered the questions didn’t turn up. It’s an absolute disgrace. Now what the council is saying is they’re looking at the viable parts of the facility. They’ll go in and refurbish it and hand it over to a private entity.
“ The board of management was hung out to dry by the council having to go in and sack 30 people. The staff were left to work on low pay and even took a pay cut and now they’re sacked without answers. I won’t be supporting privatisation of this public facility.”
Cllr Connell said: “Nobody will.”
Cllr Dwane Stanley added: “It’s a failure on behalf of management of the council. The staff are more than entitled to blame the council on this. They have been sacked by the council with no answers. Portarlington (leisure Centre) nearly became a cropper by the same stuff. You could see that last year.”
‘All I know is that I asked four times for the money to be provided and it wasn’t.’
Cllr Tuohy said: “People were asking me and I couldn’t answer them, was how come they told you they had no money to give you and could say they are going to refurbish the centre? All I know is that I asked four times for the money to be provided and it wasn’t.”
Cllr Willie Aird said: “When it was built the council said that they weren’t going to run it and wanted a voluntary organisation to. They took on a license fee. Paying rent, for want of a better word, on an annual basis and it was astronomical sometimes.
“The signs I saw coming was when Ben Dunne opened his gym (in Portlaoise). That hit the centre really hard. You can’t compete with something like that. Loyalty. Loyalty was the only thing that you could have hoped for at that stage. That people would have stayed with you. You also had the Maldron Hotel, The Heritage Hotel and The Killeshin Hotel. But when the Covid came, that was the beginning of the end.
“It behoves us as public representatives that it reopens. Commitments have been given that the people who have already paid in money will have it returned or, whenever it reopens, can get an extension.”
Cllr Tuohy said: “Nobody will be out of pocket.”
Cllr Aird said: “We will reopen. There’s no question about that.”
Cllr Tuohy said: “It’s a sad day for the staff and for the community. We as councillors cannot tolerate this. It cannot be anything more than a temporary closure. I call on council management and councillors to pull together on this. Point scoring is over.”
Cathaoirleach cllr John Joe Fennelly: “Its been a fantastic facility down through the years for the people in Laois. We certainly won’t be found wanting with support from council members to make sure the leisure centre is reopened.”
‘The council didn’t sack anybody.’
Mr Walton said: “A number of things need to be clarified here. The facts are that the operation of this facility was operating as a private entity. It was a limited company with a board of directors. They had a licence to operate the facility since 2012. It has been outlined the various challenges from the private sector as well as from covid-19 that gave rise to this. Nobody doubts the huge efforts that the board of management put in.
“But to say that the council has sacked 30 people is simply not the case. It shouldn’t go out there because it is inaccurate. The council didn’t sack anybody. Unfortunately 30 people lost their jobs because a private operating entity could not continue to operate as a going concern.
“There were various names mentioned in the debate. The record needs to be corrected. This is not the road to privatisation. Nor is it a shift away from public ownership. The operation of this facility has never been in public ownership. It’s been operated as a private concern since day one.
“The council developed and owns the facility. Now that the going concern that was operating it is no longer going to be operating it the council is determined to see the facility reopened. In the interest of clarity that needs to be highlighted. It does not fall to Laois County Council to appoint a manager because the council is not the operator of the facility. It falls to the board to appoint a manager. That is the way private operations work.”
Cllr Dwane Stanley said: “You keep referring to it as a private entity. If you think for one moment that anybody in this community looks at Portlaoise Leisure Centre as a private entity, then you are vastly mistaken. The reality is, it is seen as a public facility, built out of public money.
“What happens is that boards are set up to operate the facility on behalf of Laois County Council, The council can’t now exonerate itself and say it’s somebody else’s problem. It is not a private entity. You could go through other centres in Laois such as Treo Nua, which was built with public money too.”
‘Someone’s reputation is being discussed here.’
Cllr Willie Aird said: “The most important thing that was said was that the Chief Executive of Laois County Council John Mulholland sacked 30 people,that’s what was said.”
“I didn’t say that,” retorted cllr Dwane Stanley. “What I did say was that the Director of Services didn’t turn up to meet the 30 people who were sacked. He didn’t turn up to answer their questions. He expected the board to answer them, Noel (cllr Tuohy) said that he looked for money four times from the council and was told no.”
Mr Walton said: “Someone’s reputation is being discussed here. I don’t want to be shifting the blame. That’s not what I’m about here. What was said is, and I’ve written it down, that we, Laois County Council and then reference to the Director of Services sacked 30 people. That is factually and reputationally completely inappropriate and not a fair reflection of what has happened. There is a licence with a limited company to operate a public facility that was built out of the public purse. Unfortunately that board has seen fit and had no option but to apply for the business to be put into liquidation. That’s what’s happened. Some comments made earlier are not factual.
“I disagree with you on that,” said cllr Dwane Stanley.
Mr Walton said: “You made the statements initially and I see fit to correct them.”
The meeting concluded with agreement from all councillors that the issue would be brought before the next full meeting of Laois County Council.