REGENERATION of the city centre has been given a shot in the arm with a €100 million EU loan to the University of Limerick.
UL intends to leverage the advance to secure further funding from government and private donors as part of a five-year, €224 million capital plan covering three sites - the Plassey campus, University Hospital Limerick and the city centre.
Announcing approval of the loan from the European Investment Bank, UL president Prof Don Barry said the university intended playing its full part in the rebirth of Limerick by having a permanent presence in the heart of the city.
“My dream is that in a few years’ time, there will be hundreds of students of the university participating in the life of the city, learning in the city, recreating in the city and contributing to the revitalisation of the Limerick city centre. Limerick is our city and we are its university,” he said.
Whether that presence will be at the Opera Centre site owned by Limerick City Council remains to be seen and further detail will not emerge until UL holds more detailed talks with the EIB in September.
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan, who was at Plassey House for the announcement, said approval for the loan had come at a meeting last week.
“I have become quite friendly with the president of European Investment Bank. He brought his management team to Dublin for a meeting during the course of the Irish presidency and in conversation he pointed out to me that in the past Ireland hadn’t fully availed of the resources of the EIB,” said the minister.
“So I put my secretary general John Moran on the board of directors and John attended the meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday evening where this was sanctioned. As the president (Don Barry) says there is work to be done of a legal nature, of a planning nature, construction and financial nature but it is a major first step and, even in these modern times, €100 million is a very significant amount of money so I am absolutely delighted.”
Minister Noonan said the money would advance three projects close to his heart, the continued development of UL itself, University Hospital Limerick, and the regeneration of the city centre.
“The commitment by the president of the university to the city centre is now manifest and there will be a significant presence in the new city as outlined in the 2030 development plan and as part of the regeneration of the city centre. That is an amazing advance so quickly after the announcement,” he said.
Full details of the UL capital development plan will be revealed later in the year. The ambitious, five-year plan includes advanced research facilities in pharmaceutical science, biomedical engineering and health and energy as well as a new training centre for the Munster rugby team - all to take place on the UL campus.
In addition, a clinical research building is to be built at University Hospital Limerick as UL further cements its relationship with the HSE and the acute hospitals of the Mid-West.
“We have a lot of work to do yet and in September we have to sit down with the bank and figure out the financial and technical details as regards this loan and we will be making a more substantial announcement together with the bank before the end of the year when all those details have been worked out,” said Prof Barry.
“This is a €220 million plan and this is a loan facility for €100 million, so we have to work on filling that gap and trying to leverage this facility with other funders such as the state and private donors - and that’s what we will be busy doing between now and Christmas.”
And Prof Barry was confident the university was not over-extending itself in taking on so large a loan.
“We won’t be drawing down any borrowings that we don’t regard as sustainable. We will need a sustainable funding plan to underpin any loan that we take down. This is a loan facility and our intention is to use that loan facility to the full because it is a wonderful opportunity for this university and for the city of Limerick,” he declared.
While he could not put a precise figure on how many construction jobs could be created at the three sites across the city, Prof Barry estimated it would run into the thousands over the duration of the five-year capital development plan.
A site had already been cleared on campus as part of the plans and he expected the builders to move in after their holidays.
While Trinity College and UCD have drawn on funds from the European Investment Bank in recent years, this was the first time UL had applied for funds since the 1980s, Minister Noonan observed.
The loan application, Prof Barry said, was only drawn up this year and he paid tribute to UL’s head of finance John Field and his team in making it a success.
Jonathan Taylor, European Investment Bank vice-president for Ireland said: “The European Investment Bank is committed to long-term investment in Irish education. Approval of the significant new funding for the University of Limerick by the bank’s board is a key step and demonstrates recognition of the importance of this flagship project.”
UL graduate Deputy Kieran O’Donnell, meanwhile, said the €224 million plan had “remarkable implications for Limerick”, amounting to an average investment of €850,000 in the city every week over its five-year duration.