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Monaghan barracks to become €20 million education campus

August 12, 2010

Work is to start early next year on a €20 million education campus on the site of a former army barracks in Monaghan town, which closed last year.

The 20-acre site has been acquired for €3.1million by Monaghan VEC, which is managing the plan for the country’s first integrated educational campus. It will be home to Monaghan Institute of Further Education, a gaelscoil, gaelcholÁiste and an Irish language pre-school, as well as a theatre, gym and sports fields.

Martin O’Brien, chief executive of Monaghan VEC, said the project had the full backing of the government and should have its first intake of students in September 2012. A Dublin firm, Oppermann Architects, has been appointed to lead the design team for the project, and a feasibility study on what could be built on the site is almost complete.
O’Brien said a planning application for the project would be submitted to Monaghan County Council around October.

He is hopeful that planning permission could be granted by next January, allowing work to begin on the site in early spring. ‘‘We have the site, and the different government departments have come together to support us,” O’Brien said. ‘‘We have talked to the county council and looked at roads planning, so we know what the council will require on an application. Now we are working on pre-qualifying building contractors, so we can move quickly once permission is granted.”
He said the project would cost at least €20 million, although that might be ‘‘a bit on the small side’’.

Despite poor economic conditions, he said he was confident that funding would be available to allow the campus to go ahead as planned.
‘‘I met the Taoiseach last week and the first thing he asked me was how things were going with the proposal,” O’Brien said. ‘‘We have given a commitment to four or five ministers on this, and the local people.
There is no way we are going to let anyone down.” ‘‘This really is going to be a turning point for education in this country. It is up to the VEC to step up and make the running on this.
We are going to deliver this,” said O’Brien. He said the plan would address a ‘‘deficit of sites for education’’ in Monaghan.

He said that funding had already been agreed for a new gaelscoil, as the existing school in the town was in ‘‘inadequate accommodation’’. The Irish pre-school is attached to the gaelscoil and recently sought to be included in the move to the barracks site on the Armagh Road.
The second-level gaelcoláiste was set up about five years ago and is operating from a rented premises. It has 185 students enrolled for September, but is taking in about 65 students each year and will soon be a school of almost 400 students.

Monaghan Institute of Further Education has 550 students but is also using rented accommodation, including some at St Davnet’s psychiatric hospital.
The institute has already been using some of the army barracks buildings since the last soldiers left in January 2009.

The closure of the base after almost 25 years was part of a move, announced by the government in October 2008, to save money by shutting five army facilities. O’Brien said the VEC plan for the site originated in the same week as the closure and after he had met Tánaiste Mary Coughlan.
‘‘I was introduced to the Tánaiste and wanted to find out about the barracks, because I had concerns about what might happen to the site,” he said. ‘‘She said that if we made a submission that represented value for money, it would get consideration from the government.”
When he first launched the education plan at a VEC meeting, ‘‘some people said it was crazy’’, according to O’Brien. However, a VEC committee of about 24 people was formed, representing abroad sweep of the community, including political and church representatives.
A delegation met the then minister for education, Batt O’Keeffe, for what O’Brien described as ‘‘a very productive meeting’’.

The committee then drew up estimates of what the site and the development would cost, and made a submission to government. On November 30, Taoiseach Brian Cowen visited Monaghan and gave the go-ahead to the plan. He asked the VEC to manage the project and ‘‘came with the money’’ for the VEC to buy the site, O’Brien said. ‘‘It is bought and paid for. We have the full deeds.”
He said that ‘‘major work’’ had been done on the project since then, including hiring legal advisers, project managers, and archaeological and topographical experts. ‘‘We worked through the Christmas holidays and we worked a half-day on St Patrick’s Day,” he said.
As well as the departments of Defence and Education, O’Brien has had contact with the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, which is co-funding the theatre on the site. ‘‘We have got a very fair hearing and good support everywhere we went,” he said.

The project took a big step forward last month with the appointment of Oppermann to lead the design team. It will work with Hawkins Brown, an architecture firm in London.
Oppermann has worked on a number of education projects, including Ballyfermot Senior College and Coláiste I’de in Dublin, as well as primary and secondary schools around the country. Its private sector work includes shopping centres, restaurants, hotels and spa facilities.

O’Brien said the campus could lead the regeneration of Monaghan, which has been hit by people going to the North to shop, as well as historical associations with the border. Consideration is being given to incorporating a pedestrian walkway on the site, which backs onto the Ulster Canal and is ‘‘a beautiful amenity’’, according to the VEC head.
The plan for the barracks site also showed the kind of role that VECs could play, at a time when there was pressure to rationalise or integrate state bodies, he said. The VEC has not taken on any extra staff to deal with the project and was ‘‘happy to do it’’.

‘‘We don’t want anything for nothing. Everybody has been frozen solid [by the recession], but there is no point sitting on your backside. No one is going to do it for you,” said O’Brien.

The Sunday Business Post – Gavin Daly
01 Lúnasa 2010