belfasttelegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Viewpoint: Stadium: it's make-your-mind-up time

If it was a sporting fixture, the debate over a national stadium for Northern Ireland would now be well into extra time. But as the months have turned into years two main options have emerged - build the facility at the Maze with funding of an £80m Government grant, or locate it at Ormeau Park in Belfast and forego the funding.

Public opinion remains split, although the Strategic Investment Board and Sports Minister Edwin Poots are convinced that the Maze is the only viable location. Belfast has belatedly been trying to make a case for Ormeau Park, but now the City Council has come to a crossroads.

At this evening's meeting in the City Hall, councillors have to decide whether to stay on track with the already agreed procurement process, and appoint a preferred developer. The other option is to endorse the leisure and recreation committee's recommendation, and kick for touch by deciding to examine the business case for a stadium.

As the two development companies which are on the City Hall's shortlist have pointed out, the council has not so far covered itself in glory. Both have been working with the council in good faith for almost four years now, and a further protracted delay would threaten to sabotage Belfast's chances.

Despite the economic benefits which a 25,000 seat stadium would bring to Belfast, the City Council has been lacklustre in its approach. In June, it missed an opportunity to rise to the challenge set by Mr Poots for it to produce an alternative to the Maze.

If Belfast really wants the stadium, it needs to beat the drum and convince the public that Ormeau Park could be a suitable location. Can the loss of green space be justified? Will access be adequate? What are the transport links? Would a stadium get planning permission?

The reality is that the business case should have been established at the outset and so far down the line is the procurement process that it now looks like the cart is being put before the horse. But if such an exercise is needed, a strict time limit must be set and adhered to.

Unless Belfast gets its act together, the proposal for a stadium in the city will die a slow death. The city council needs to have the courage of its convictions and if it feels a stadium at Ormeau Park is really a runner, it needs to set out its stall.

Tonight, decisive action is required so that the developers and more importantly, the public, are clear about the practicalities of the proposal. Further procrastination will undermine the council's credibility, both with the sporting codes and the Government.

If Belfast is not a serious player, then the council needs to say so and the debate can focus on the merits of the Maze. If the ball is still in play, then Belfast City Council needs to move it up the field.

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