“It’s about time Castlebar turned its face on Lough Lannagh and not its back,” said An Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the launch of the town’s ambitious €12.5 million National Pursuits Academy in June 2012.
Since then, what should be the most adventurous and positive development for the county town has turned into a political football with so much misinformation being put into the public domain.
Sinn Féin councillor Therese Ruane has been hung out to dry on the matter, having being left in the unenviable position at a recent local authority meeting of making the deciding vote on whether a 50m pool should be developed instead of a 25m facility. Going against her heart and voting with her head on the matter by opting for the 25m option could leave Cllr Ruane’s political career in jeopardy, but she had to vote on what she deemed was the best option for the town.
The simple fact of the matter is that Castlebar does not have the population base for a 50m Olympic sized pool, the council cannot afford to build or maintain one, and it would be the local, stretched to their limits, businesses who would end up paying colossal rates to fund the facility.
An additional capital investment of €2 million would be needed to upgrade the pool to 50 metres. As Cllr Ruane has pointed out this money would have to be borrowed and would incur an estimated annual interest payment of €100,000.
The annual running cost of the larger facility would require an additional €300,000 per year, leaving Castlebar Town Council with an additional bill of €400,000.
It is plain to see that the figures don’t add up and the only way the council could service such a bill would be to increase the business rates by 10 per cent. Such a move would be totally unacceptable to the business community who are struggling for survival as it is and who cannot absorb any more charges.
There are other considerations too. In a perfect world, where money is plentiful, an Olympic sized swimming pool would be the ultimate coup for Castlebar. But Galway, Cork, and Belfast didn’t have the budgets to do it during the Celtic Tiger era. How on earth do people actually think that Castlebar, with a population of 10,500, can afford such a development in these stringent times? The right decision was made or the whole project could have been put in jeopardy.
The development, when finished, will incorporate a swimming pool complex with a floating floor to facilitate water polo, scuba diving, and life-saving; a running track; and four playing pitches around Lough Lannagh with Castlebar Town Council, Mayo County Council, and GMIT collaborating on the project.
A large portion of the funding is already in place with applications for further allocations made to relevant sources.
This debate has to be looked at rationally. Apart from the associated costs there are everyday operational issues to consider. A 50m pool would require four full time lifeguards instead of two for a 25m one. Most ordinary leisure swimmers would balk at the prospect of swimming the length of a 50m pool, and how often would it be available for leisure swimmers if the Connacht clubs have it booked for training and competitions?
In a letter to this paper this week, Cllr Ruane said: “I refuse to vote for a project that would mean an increase of 10 per cent in rates for businesses in the town and consequent jobs losses.
“Those who propose taking on such a debt, and asking the ratepayers to shoulder such a burden, are neither living in the real world, nor responsibly representing the citizens of Castlebar.”