The Danny Blanchflower parks project in east Belfast today appeared to have nudged ahead in the race to become the new national stadium of Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The Tillysburn site seems to be gaining ground on its competitors despite the recommendation of an official report which has favoured Ormeau Park for the site of the multi-million pound multi-sports ground.
But the consultants who named Ormeau as their first preference gave the Blanchflower proposal their second preference and its supporters have now been asked to come up with a full business plan.
The report commissioned by Belfast City Council is said to have cost in the region of around £150,000.
Councillors, however, believe that in the current economic climate it is very unlikely that any of the projects, which also include the development of Maysfield Leisure Centre, will become a reality, at least in the short to medium term.
And while a final decision from the Department of Culture, Art and Leisure — whose Minister, Nelson McCausland, also sits on the Belfast City Council committee looking at the various plans — is some way off, it is felt an upgrade of the three existing grounds in the city, one already under way for rugby at Ravenhill Park, is a much more viable prospect.
The Blanchflower stadium — now known as the ‘Parks’ proposal because it also combines the Blanchflower site with the former Lord Mayor Tommy Patton park as well as ground at Shorts — could also be given its own railway halt.
Churches and residents have lodged strong objections to the Ormeau Park proposal and the chairman of the council’s parks and leisure committee, Councillor Bob Stoker, said there is a lack of political will to proceed with it.
“My position would be that is the best choice in terms of geographical location, economic benefit, transport and location to the city centre. It has everything going for it,” the Ulster Unionist representative said.
“But from the political point of view it is not a vote winner amongst representatives from that particular part of the city.”
DUP councillor Robin Newton, a member of the committee, said: “The difference in the consultants’ report between their first and second preferences was a very small margin. It has to do with the existing sports and leisure centre provision at Ormeau but there is also the issue of the infrastructure and being able to handle 25,000 to 30,000 people because this would also become an entertainment stadium as well as for sport.
“There was a fairly immediate response from churches in the area, that they did not want big events on a Sunday and also from concerned residents who did not want this stadium on their doorstep.”
His party colleague, William Humphrey, added, however: “The way I see it, in the current economic downturn, I don’t see in the near future that we will be able to proceed with any new stadium for Belfast. It has got to stack up financially and at the moment the likely option is the upgrade of the existing three stadia.”
Mr McCausland is currently considering the options and a key element will be the attitude of the main sporting organisations, — football, GAA as well as rugby — following the abandonment of the Maze stadium project by his predecessor, Gregory Campbell.
A Belfast City Council spokesman said: “No final decisions have been made.”
Above: An artist’s impression of where the proposed Ormeau stadium would be situated