LIMERICK City Council is seeking a judgment mortgage in the High Court against the Opera Centre development site over the alleged non-payment of commercial rates.
It is understood that in the region of €350,000 is owed to City Hall by the developers of the vacant shopping centre site in the Patrick Street area.
Rates for the site amount to €350,000 per annum and, it is alleged, have not been paid for two years. Even if commercial properties are not trading, the Council can still apply rates at 50 per cent.
Once described as "Limerick's shopping mecca", the project backed by Dublin-based Regeneration Developments has been in the pipeline for five years but councillors have predicted the project is now destined for the National Asset Management Agency.
Councillors said this week that they were "led up the garden path" with the €350 million development which was expected to revitalise the city centre and curb out-of-town shopping.
"It was a development in the heart of the city that promised so much during the boom years and now we've been left with nothing," said Labour councillor Joe Leddin.
Existing businesses vacated the site after being bought out and planning permission was granted twice by An Bord Pleanala.
Cllr Leddin had raised concerns during a meeting this Tuesday about whether the Council is collecting any rates from this site or other "eyesore" developments.
"The Opera Centre is the single biggest derelict site, probably in the country. When are we going to get something in there? We can't adopt a laissez-faire attitude in the hope that things will turn round. We can't curl up in a ball and wait for the economic clouds to pass over," said Cllr Leddin.
Cllr Leddin said he doubted the company was paying anything in rates but officials at the meeting made no response to this.
One spokesperson for City Hall told the Leader that ratepayers have a right to confidentiality over their affairs but the Council generally seeksto havejudgment mortgages registered against premises if rates aren't paid.
A special meeting in committee - where the public and media are prevented from attending - has been called to examine all the vacant commercial sites in the city and determine if tenants can be found while developers'financial affairs are being teased out at a national level.
Two years ago, councillors had complained that over €500,000 in rates would be lost by the Council over the course of three years if dozens of retail units on Bank Place, Rutland Street, Patrick Street and Ellen Street were left vacant.
But at that time a spokesperson for the company reassured the Limerick Leaderthat once the retail centre was fully operational, the City Council would regain this loss of rates within one year of business.
"Once the Opera Centre is open, the City Council will receive at least five times more than what they're receiving now – it will be in the region of €1 million per year. This development is going to generate lots of income and lots of footfall in the city – it's all positive," said a spokesperson.
Cllr Leddin urged the Council to be more proactive in attracting tenants for the mounting numbers of vacant buildings in the city. "We need to have plans for the sites, even if the finance isn't there," he said.
Independent councillor Pat Kennedy said he was "very doubtful about the grandiose notions" for that site.
"We were led up the garden path to be honest about it. After several years the whole situation is an absolute disgrace," said Cllr Kennedy.
Addressing these issues, city manager Tom Mackey said it was previously the case that "the Council had the sites and developers had the finance".
"Now most developers are finding it very difficult to get finance and come to us," said Mr Mackey, adding that "national issues are impacting on us".
The company behind the development have invested at least €92 million to date on the project and owe creditors €117 million.
It had been reported that Anglo Irish Bank had a 50 per cent share in the development. Just three directors now remain on the board of the company - David Courtney, 49, Rathmines; Jerry O'Reilly, 64, Ranelagh and Terence Sweeney, 28, Dublin 2.