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Weekend Read: Finances, repairs, competition and Covid – a perfect storm that brought down the Portlaoise Leisure Centre

It has been quite a week for Ben Smith, the manager at Portlaoise Leisure Centre.

Last Monday after lunch, he got an email, just like the rest of 30 staff in the centre, asking him to attend a meeting that night. No reason was given but he knew it couldn’t be good.

Shortly after he got a call from LaoisToday, after we’d been tipped off that a decision had been taken by the board that run the facility to to close it with immediate effect.

We duly published the story and the combination of that news hitting social media and the email to the staff ensured that his phone was hopping.

He got in touch with a board member who confirmed it was true.

That evening at a heated, emotional and sometimes angry meeting – held in Dunamaise Arts Centre to ensure social distancing – the board members and an accountant appointed to liquidate the company laid out what was happening and why.

Smith has been working in Portlaoise Leisure Centre since before it opened in its current guise in 2008. Having moved from his native Wales to live in Ireland a year earlier, he played a key role in its early days, even interviewing candidates for life guard jobs in the swimming pool in Portarlington

He has been in the manager’s role for the past couple of years having been assistant manager prior to that. Like him, many of the staff have been there since the start also.

Two more – Jackie Delaney and Pat Scully – worked in the old swimming pool on the same site. They’ve both spent almost 30 years working there.

All of them now have been made redundant though they’re not going down without a fight.

After the hospital, there’s not a public facility in Laois that is as widely used by people at all stages of life and from all over the county.

From small children going into the pool for the first time, right up to people in their 80s and 90s, the leisure centre facility – which includes a playground, a skatepark, a gym, a walking track, meeting rooms and an astroturf pitch – has a market for all ages.

In all there’s about 700 memberships that entails over 1,000 members. Many more use it on a pay per go basis.

The Portlaoise Municipal District meeting of Laois County Council on Wednesday heard that members will be offered a refund or the opportunity to let their membership run on to a new administration, if and when that is in operation. So far there has been no confirmation on how that will work.

Unfortunately it’s an expensive facility to run and in recent times it has been hit by a perfect storm.

Though there has always been competition from other gyms and private leisure centres in hotels in a crowded market in the town, the hugely popular Ben Dunne Gyms opened in the summer of 2018.

Almost overnight, they lost 45% of their gym membership, tempted away by the €19 a month membership charge, about half of what it is to be a member in the Portlaoise Leisure Centre.

Then the Coronavirus hit, meaning it hasn’t been open since March 12. It would have been due to re-open in July but was facing increasing costs and for the foreseeable future, a massive shortfall in swimming pool income given that primary school swimming lessons made up a significant proportion of its custom.

With the schools facing enough challenges in terms of getting students into the classroom, arranging buses to go swimming was never going to be a priority.

And while gyms have a lower cost base, that’s certainly not the case for swimming pools.

Built in 2007, the pool has a floating floor system, meaning its depth can be changed as needs be. But that gave problems almost from the start and was expensive to repair with dive teams needed to go under the water to work on it.

Numerous other remedial repairs were met out of the leisure centre’s finances and it was an ongoing and considerable drain.

Though the council had developed and owned the building, like numerous other public facilities in the county, a limited company was set up, a board of directors appointed and staff hired to run it.

Its ethos is not to make money, but to provide affordable sports and leisure facilities accessible to all. It does need to break even, though and isn’t subsidised by council.

The finances have not been great for some time with warnings appearing in the audited accounts in recent years about its ability to trade as a going concern.

Money was needed to keep it going. The council did help out when it was left with a hefty legal bill from a legacy issue a couple of years ago but this time they said it couldn’t. Numerous requests from the board were turned down.

At Wednesday’s meeting of the Portlaoise Municipal District, Cllr Noel Tuohy, who is chairman of the board, explained that they needed €300,000 to keep the leisure centre going until the end of the year.

It presumably would be facing further losses in 2021, though Smith has pointed out that there is also substantial costs to the Council of carrying out the refurbishing works they have promised and of winding down the company.

The accountants told the members of the board, who are all there in a voluntary capacity, that they could be personally liable for “reckless trading” if they continued knowing that they couldn’t pay their bills.

“If someone came in owed €100, wouldn’t be in a position to pay it,” said Cllr Tuohy who added that they had asked Laois County Council “three or four times” for the money they needed.

Laois County Council have stated that they will be keeping the playground, astroturf and skatepark open. They have also said that they will be carrying out refurbishments and actively seeking an entity to come in and run it.

Cllr Caroline Dwane-Stanley, however, has accused the council of “privatisation through the back door” and Smith has said that privatatisation of a facility, built with public money, would be a wrong and bad decision. 

But for now the doors remain shut, the pool covered over.

All sport had been paused for the past couple of months anyway because of the Coronavirus restrictions but the decision now means that the likes of the very successful Marlins swimming club, regarded as one of the best in the province, are without a home.

So too are Trilogy Triathlon Club and a number of other groups like Laois Down Syndrome and the Kolbe Special School.

On Monday morning at 10am, a group will gather at the Leisure Centre and march to Laois County Council to protest. Ben Smith, though now out of a job, is co-ordinating it. A number of people from the various user groups are lined up to speak.

Over 4,000 people have signed a petition to keep it open.

It’s likely another protest will be held at the full meeting of Laois County Council the following week.

Expect this one to run.

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