Opensparkz executives get grilling from councillors

Cllr Lisa Chambers put a number of questions to Opensparkz executives at a meeting of Mayo County Council.

Cllr Lisa Chambers put a number of questions to Opensparkz executives at a meeting of Mayo County Council.

Two executives from Opensparkz, the company which is looking to purchase the old Volex plant in Castlebar from Mayo County Council for €700,000 to set up a technology hub in the town, faced a grilling from the elected members of Mayo County Council this week.

The company's chief executive officer, Paul Lindsay, and chief operations officer, Niall Shanahan, sat at the executive bench in the chamber for the one and three quarter hour question and answers session.

Questions had been raised in recent months following on from the announcement of the project in Washington DC on St Patrick's Day.

The questions related to a dispute involving the founder of Opensparkz, Declan Conway, and investors of a previous company.

Council chief executive Peter Hynes informed the meeting at the outset of the discussion that he had obtained some paperwork in relation to the project and he had reviewed the documents and taken legal advice.

The papers related to an internal dispute between the investors in a previous venture and a company unrelated to Opensparkz, and he said Mayo County Council is not a party to that dispute and does not want to become embroiled in it.

He went on to say that following legal and accounting advice received by the council, there was no impediment to the council doing business with Opensparkz.

He also responded to a question raised at the previous meeting as to when the council began the process of buying the old Volex plant.

He outlined that discussions began in June last year and it took a number of months for the deal to close. Members were informed that it was completed in November last year. He continued that it was not purchased for any specific individual or company or intent or project, but was purchased as an asset for the county and to put the council in a more controlling position in terms of enterprise space development.

As for the Opensparkz project itself, the council will be involved in two areas - the sale of the Volex building and the leasing of some land at the Derrinumera landfill site.

He also said that from his understanding there were 10 memoradums of understanding from companies related to the Opensparkz project and he had sight of four of those and spoke to the CEOs of the four companies.

From those discussions, he understood their potential investment in the projects is in the region of €30 millon.

The potential jobs to be created would be in the range of 100 to 300 over the next three years.

But he informed the councillors that this was a proposed business venture and there were no guarantees of the jobs. He was not in a position to give a guarantee about numbers of jobs or levels of investment.

He informed the members that the question for them was "do we sell the building and the offer for the building is €700,000, the cost we paid for it was €610,000."

He also told the members that the company wants a straight sale of the building and unencumbered ownership of the building. It was a commercial decision, the councillors' commercial decision to sell it or not.

He said he expected that the proposed sale would come before the council members at the June meeting.

Fianna Fáil councillor Lisa Chambers got the proceedings under way with a number of queries in relation to the ownership structure of the company and its plans.

She also asked that the council be given first refusal on the building if the project failed to work out at the then current market rate.

Mr Shanahan said there would be no problem including that in the deal.

She also asked if the council had the premises revalued since it bought it last year.

Mr Hynes responded they had not but he did not believe it would have changed.

Cllr Gerry Ginty said that he queried if there was any IDA involvement in the process and if any grants were being given towards the project. He was told there were no grants or investments being made.

Cllr Michael Kilcoyne asked why the company wanted to buy the building rather than rent it on a long term deal.

Mr Shanahan responded that they were planning to invest in the region of €8 million in the plant to ensure that it was up to the standard and kit out that the project required and that it would not be possible to do that if the building was rented.

As for why the project is coming to Castlebar, Mr Shanahan informed the members: "The reason we are sitting here is that I met Cllr Cyril Burke in Dublin socially a year ago. We were having a discussion about our project and he asked us did we consider Castlebar and we said why not.

"The founder's father is from Castlebar and that's how it took off. It could be Kilkenny, it could be Kildare, it's very simple. It's all about timing. I want to be here, I'm happy to be here. "

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