Colin McDonald: 'If Maze/Long Kesh impasse is resolved site will flourish'
Ahead of the 2016 Balmoral Show Linda Stewart talks to Colin McDonald, chief executive of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society.
Q. Could you tell me about your background?
A. I'm a civil engineer, so I started my working career in Belfast Harbour Commissioners as a junior engineer, and then I worked for WDR and RT Taggart, who are consultants on water retaining structures; everything from the culvert at the Westlink, Shankill Leisure Centre, Ballysillan Leisure Centre, swimming pools. Then I was going to go and work abroad as an engineer and I spotted an advert in the Belfast Telegraph to work for a company that I'd come across in the Harbour. I knew it would be a good company and that was Barnett's. So rather than staying in engineering and going abroad, I left engineering and stayed here, in the feed trade. Barnett's is such a large group - you have the opportunity to do all sorts of things so I was involved in stevedoring, labour relations, manufacturing, and eventually ended up heading up some of its divisions, and then the RUAS.
Q. How did that come about?
A. I knew the RUAS at that time were about to enter into a period of strategic change and it was a unique opportunity to lead the organisation through that change. I didn't expect it to take as long as it is taking! But we're nearly there now.
Q. What kind of change were they talking about?
A. The issue was that charities like this require enabling finance to carry out their charitable activities. Enabling finance for the RUAS came from the exhibition business at the King's Hall and it was under threat due to the Odyssey, the Waterfront and also from Dublin at the O2. So that meant the funds to run the Balmoral Show were under threat. So that was the reason for the revised strategy, and the strategy is for the existing site at the King's Hall complex to be developed in housing. Part of it is going to become a commercial development. The housing will create capital: the commercial development will help create a commercial income stream which will be the enabling finance. The exhibition business will continue at Balmoral Park, where the Eikon has been built.
Q. Could you tell me a bit about your personal background?
A. I'm not from farming stock, I'm from Belfast. My expertise is not in agriculture but it is in business, and because of my engineering background, in construction and in property development. Because of my career to date I have a broad knowledge of the agricultural sector.
Q. Did you find it a big jump in culture when you came to RUAS?
A. I have a lot of experience in organisations that are similar to the way the RUAS works, so it was a slight culture shock at the start but it didn't take me too long to bring the skills from those organisations and put them in with what I already do and hopefully get the balance right.
Q. Is there a typical day?
A. There's no such thing! At the minute we are three weeks from Balmoral Show and so far Balmoral Show isn't the top priority. That is sorting out the development agreement for the front part of the King's Hall. I remember that this time last year it was the sorting out of the development agreement for the houses and I thought then that the Balmoral Show was a pleasant interlude in my hectic dealings with everybody that was involved - lawyers, planners, developers, all the agencies that were involved. And it's the same again this year except that it's going to be the front part.
Q. What is the plan for the front part?
A. The whole of the 16 acres is going to be a healthcare campus. The King's Hall will be the home to three GP practices and associated with that will be the outpatient care which includes imaging, audiology, ophthalmology, all will be here, so that means that the GPs can look after the next stage of referral without having to refer people to hospital.
Q. What about the housing?
A. It has started - the first phase has 19 houses and all of them are coming out of the ground now. Eighteen have been sold and one is being kept as a showhouse. There won't be a next phase; from here on in the houses will be built as they're needed - a total of 140 units - and that will take five years to put on the ground.
Q. Will your team be moving?
A. We will move when this property development comes on stream. It depends when the planning for the commercial development comes through, and after we enter into the agreement it could take anything from six months to a year to get planning. Then the development starts to get built, and at that stage we'll be evicting ourselves.
Q. Over the 10 years what sort of hurdles have you had to overcome?
A. I think the biggest one was the demise of the national stadium being at Maze/Long Kesh because we would have been associated with that. Whenever it didn't get the go-ahead, RUAS was the last man standing, really. We hadn't decided at that stage to move to Maze/Long Kesh. We had looked at a lot of sites and it was shortlisted down to two, of which Maze/Long Kesh was one. Really, that meant we had to start from the beginning to do our plans and that was a big hurdle. I suppose the members' vote in June 2012, because it wasn't clear what way that was going to go, and 92% in favour of the strategy was huge but... someone said to me that I was grey, and they weren't talking about my hair.
Q. If they hadn't gone with that vote, what would have been the long-term outcome?
A. There was no alternative other than the strategy because there was no other way to secure enabling finance. Therefore there would have been six or nine Balmoral Shows left - that's all the money that would have run that. And then we would have ended up like the Royal of England or more recently the East of England Show, both of which... the Royal of England literally was the biggest show in the country. There was no more reason why the Balmoral Show would have survived than they would. If there was no enabling finance, it too would not have survived.
Q. How is Balmoral Park going to evolve?
A. At the time of the members' vote there were quite a few expressions of interest in people that wanted to come and be at Balmoral Park as well as us. Those expressions of interest have maybe died off a bit over the last three years, but now there is again interest because people see how successful Balmoral Park is becoming and feel more confident that it would be a home for them too. But it's at the early stages.
Q. You were talking about a hub for environment and agricultural agencies.
A. It looks like that is going to come to pass. Ulster Wildlife and Ulster Farmers Union were mentioned at the time in 2012 and it hasn't been ruled out.
Q. Are there any other neighbours in separate sections of the site?
A. There are, but there is a political impasse on Maze/Long Kesh and until that gets resolved I think that... because of the uncertainty of that, potential developers and potential occupiers are less keen. Once the uncertainty is removed, then it will open the way for people to take advantage of the benefits of the site. For south Lisburn, the main advantage would be the creation of jobs.
Q. What is the situation at the moment?
A. There's a political impasse. Everyone has expressed a wish to find a way round it but so far the way hasn't been found. It hasn't stopped our development with the Eikon, which is starting to attract good business.
Q. I suppose the impasse means the roads issue is still up in the air.
A It does, because you would need the strategic road links for the wider development. You don't need them for Balmoral Park itself, although it would be nice to have.
Q. What about the M1 link?
A. The plan for that would be the Knockmore link which would join Junction 8 to Knockmore Road, then there would be a spur off that to the Maze/Long Kesh site.
Q. Would that solve a lot of traffic problems?
A. If you decide to leave Balmoral Show when the Belfast rush hour is passing junctions 6,7 and 8, you're going to be in traffic whether the Balmoral Show is there or not. And if you leave after that, it's OK. The big issue is the Belfast rush hour and Lisburn rush hour. I think we have it right now. It was pretty bad in the first year, on the first morning. But after the first morning it got manageable and it's manageable now. Every morning on the radio you'll hear that the traffic is building up on junction 8 at Blaris. It happens every day whether or not Balmoral Show is running.
Q. Can you tell me about the Eikon development?
A It opened just before Christmas. It has to get exhibition business that is different from the exhibitions that were done at the King's Hall. At the minute easy access by car is the big thing, so if you look at the motorcycle festival which was run there, the attendance from the Republic of Ireland increased enormously than when the event was running in Belfast. Its location means its future looks like it will be for exhibitions that attract visitors from the whole of Ireland, whereas in Belfast, the visitors were mostly from Belfast, so it's a broader market you can add.
Q. What new events has it attracted so far?
A. It takes about three years from the first enquiry for an exhibition to an exhibition actually happening. So for 2017 and 2018 there are exhibitions in plan at the minute, mostly promoted by English organisers, who again are looking at the size of the demographic in Ireland. So you would have the large English exhibitions would be running in Ireland now which never ran here before. It's new trade.
Q. A number of exhibitions have moved to Titanic Quarter - can those come back?
A. The two promoters of the Titanic Quarter used to run their exhibitions in the King's Hall but they saw their future as having their own exhibition venue. That's the way that particular market has developed but it isn't the market that the Eikon is now in, so there's room for both.
Q. Anything new coming for the Balmoral Show this year?
A. In the Garden Village we'll have an edible garden section where a polytunnel is erected, so it's really bridging the gap between farm and fork so people can actually see the food growing in the ground. It's very much in keeping with the Year of Food and Drink. We've got the return of the Sustainability Village, which was introduced last year and focuses on renewable energy. We have the robotic milking returning which was huge - it was introduced last year and was hugely successful and always had a large crowd around it. We have the Eikon as well; when you have the Eikon at the Balmoral Show it gives an extra dimension. It will have the shopping village and the Government departments. That's the focal point. The site is 10% bigger again this year. You certainly can't see Balmoral Show in a day. If you spent a minute at everything that was there there wouldn't be enough minutes in one day to spend a minute at everything.
Q. Is there much change in the audience that is coming every year?
A. Because of the new location, it's very easily accessible from the south and even the other shows that we've held since the Eikon exhibition centre is out there, a quick look round the car park shows that number plates from down south have increased because of the accessibility. Because it's more than just an agricultural day out, the people coming from the towns and Belfast city have increased dramatically because there is so much to do on top of the agricultural offering as well.
Q. Is there room to breathe on the site now?
A. We've got plenty of scope to do whatever we want because of the space, and the huge advantage of having the site hard-standing because there's no danger of the show being a washout. Even if it's wet you can come to the agricultural show - just put on your wet weather gear!
Q. It seems like this year some of the bigger producers who might have been more immune to the highs and lows of prices are being hit harder. Are you noticing that?
A. At the moment the only sectors of agriculture which are keeping their head above water are the broiler industry and the eggs. Everything else is not profitable at the moment. There is a bit of dawn looking further ahead and that's coming because of the weakness of sterling. If you have an agricultural sector that is all export, and you have a weakness in sterling, it makes it easier to export and that will allow the business to maybe improve. There's also the first sign of an uptake in global demand and that will help, but I think it's been an awful two years.
Q. Does that impact on the show or do people just take the time off?
A. It definitely impacts on the show because the show is the major source of farm business and when times are as bad as they have been over the last two years it can be very difficult for men to look at investing. I think that the shoots of recovery in that sector will allow men to look further ahead. Ironically, the downturn in the agricultural economy over the last two years has really focused the attention on individual farm businesses and that can only help. If you can make it through, because of the amount of driving down the costs of production, it means that whenever there's an opportunity to expand you've got a good foundation that's already in place. But you wouldn't like to do it by having gone through two years of what we've done.
Q. Are you considering moving to four days at the minute?
A. It's being looked at seriously for 2017. From the society's point of view you have to make sure that you didn't incur an extra day's cost and have the three-day audience spread over four days. But if there is indeed an additional audience that we could attract, then it would work well. We'd have to make sure that it didn't disadvantage the trade exhibitors and the livestock exhibitors because they are the part of the show.
Q. What do you do to futureproof the RUAS?
A. Farms have to futureproof themselves by having a succession plan in place. It's exactly the same for the RUAS - we need a succession plan for getting the younger members into the decision-making process sooner than maybe previously they were. If the succession plan for running the RUAS is correct, then what the RUAS does matches the people who they come from. We think that whenever the enabling finance comes on stream, it will enable the RUAS to do more of the charitable activity that it hasn't been able to do recently because the funds were limited. There are involvement with agricultural societies in the developing world and getting more involved in education, and there's also a remit to do arts, leisure and industry.