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£27m cricket hotel at the Ageas Bowl faces uncertain future
THE building site is locked up, the wind is whistling through the gaps in the giant shell and one of the most controversial taxpayer- backed projects in the south of England has been left untouched since the beginning of October.
Surrounded by scaffolding and segments of white tarpaulin, the sight of the unfinished Hilton hotel is in sharp contrast to the sparkling new stadiums and facilities surrounding the lush outfield of the Ageas Bowl.
Progress on a taxpayer-funded luxury hotel overlooking Hampshire’s international cricket ground came to a grinding halt three months ago – and there are no guarantees about when it will start again or how much the project will eventually cost.
Work stopped when the firm building the four-star facility, Denizen, collapsed into administration prompting contractors to down tools and turn off their machinery at the West End site.
At the same time, Co-op, the bank providing the upfront costs, is in turmoil after a £1.5 billion black hole was discovered in its finances in 2013.
The bank has also faced embarrassment after one of its bosses, former Hampshire vicar Rev Paul Flowers, was arrested over allegedly buying hard drugs.
Critics have described the situation as a “nightmare scenario” and there are even fears the cost of the scheme is spiralling behind the scenes.
It is a far cry from the jubilant scenes last April when a “golden bolt” was hammered in to place to mark the completion of the first phase of the development.
At the time, there were high hopes the project, which includes stunning conference and media facilities and a Marco Pierre White restaurant, would be completed by this March – well in time for what will be an eagerly anticipated Test match involving an England team reeling from a devastating 5-0 whitewash against Australia.
Underpinning the entire project – and possibly the single most important factor keeping it on track – is the promise that Eastleigh Borough Council will buy the 175-bed hotel once it is finished, by borrowing £27m.
The project is going ahead after the Liberal Democrat-controlled council also controversially agreed to buy the lease of the 167-acre Rose Bowl site for £6.5m – as revealed by the Daily Echo.
The taxpayer-funded investments still split opinion – long after they were agreed at council level.
When the hotel idea was in its infancy in 2010, three rival local companies launched a bid for a judicial review into plans to use taxpayers’ money to secure the development.
Meridian Leisure, Shire Hotels and MacDonald Hotels had called for an investigation, but it was thrown out by a top judge before the trio of firms withdrew their appeal to that decision. There are still those, including opposition Tory councillors at the authority, who believe the venture is risky.
Conservative group boss Godfrey Olson is concerned the taxpayer will be asked to hand over more cash – despite constant reassurance from council leader Keith House that the originally agreed fee is set.
And Cllr Olson says he “very much doubts” the hotel will be completed by the time England play India in a Test match at the ground in July.
“I’m quite worried about the present position. I think the delay will continue for some time.
“Somebody has got to see to it that it is completed and somebody has got to meet the increases in costs – but who is going to do it? My concern is that it should not be Eastleigh Borough Council.”
A website has already been set up to market the hotel itself, saying it will be taking bookings in 2014 while a Twitter account for the destination has not been updated since September last year.
But despite the uncertainty surrounding the ambitious project, council chiefs are confident it will be completed with no extra cost to the tax payer and maintain the project will create hundreds of jobs for locals.
Behind the scenes, finance bosses at the authority are adamant that not a penny more than the agreed fee will be transferred on completion – even if it results in the scheme hitting yet more lengthy delays.
They have even travelled to Manchester for high-level talks with bank bosses to ensure their position is clear – and that tax payers’ cash will be protected.
It is understood that Co-op has told civic chiefs they are equally committed to completing the project and have taken on consultants Deloitte to help find new builders.
But the bank has not yet revealed to the council how much more it will cost to get builders back on site – or when this may happen.
A number of “well known”
firms are currently vying to finish the job, which is – tantalisingly – around 75 per cent complete.
The council plays no part in the finances at the construction stage and finding a builder is the responsibility of the bank, who will informcivic chiefs once they are ready to strike up a deal with new contractors.
Co-op has remained tight-lipped about the project, telling the Daily Echo only that it is “currently working with all the key stakeholders involved in this project with the aim of finding a solution as soon as possible.”
Similar messages have come from Ageas Bowl bosses as they seek to finalise their dream of creating a model Test match venue that they hope will be the envy of cricket clubs across the nation. They expect the project to be back up and running sooner rather than later – but with no date earmarked.
Another private funder, Downing, is still believed to be committed to providing the cash for a proposed upmarket spa at the site while a manager has already been appointed to take the reins at the hotel once it is complete.
The US-based hotel operator Interstate Hotels and Resorts, has been lined up to run the Hilton. The firm, which operates around the world, said it had nobody available for comment about the situation.
Hilton Worldwide confirmed it was “fully committed” to the hotel project having signed a franchise agreement with Rose Bowl plc in 2012.
A spokesman added: “We will continue to support the property owners, along with all relevant stakeholders, who we understand are working to appoint a new contractor for the property.”
Civic chiefs say the cheap loan they are securing for the purchase will mean taxpayers will see a healthy return for the investment, both through rental payments and through profits from the hotel.
They say their backing of the Ageas Bowl project will create 500 jobs and pump up to £55m a year into the local economy.
And they have pointed to the successes already unfolding at the stunning ground.
The Hampshire Cricket Community Trust, set up at the Ageas Bowl, has already boosted the on-site Poseidon Boxing Club, where numbers have swollen to more than 100.
Hampshire is still performing well out on the field – especially in the limited-over formats of the game – while international fixtures involving England have been lined up over the next three years.
India, New Zealand, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are the teams meeting the national side over the next three years.
Work is also under way on an 18-hole golf course adjacent to the hotel.
But while progress is gathering pace on and off the pitch, the giant unfinished shell of a luxury hotel – possibly the most glamorous piece in the Ageas Bowl redevelopment jigsaw – still looms large over the ground.
And the questions remain – when will work get under way again and can tax payers be reassured they will not have to foot an even bigger bill just to see the hotel completed?
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