Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday Comment

Just one month ago, on my second post to this blog on August 30 (here), I expressed some reservations about the National Curling Academy project in Kinross. I've talked to many curlers in the last four weeks, and I know now that I'm not alone in wondering if this project is the right way ahead for the Royal Caledonian Curling Club.

What I was surprised to learn this week was that the Royal Club's own Area Standing Committee has reservations about the project. The draft minutes of the ASC meeting on September 22 have just gone online here. I quote from these. "Matt Murdoch asked if there was any explanation for the rapidly escalating projected cost of the Kinross development. The current elite athletes were happy with the curling facilities at Stirling which were close to the other facilities of the Scottish Institute. In further discussion the ASC expressed severe doubts over the feasibility of the Kinross project with costs of over £5 million. The President undertook to convey the reservations of ASC to the Board."

The ASC provides the communication and representational route for member involvement in the management and administration of curling in Scotland. Members of the ASC take places on the various working committees of the RCCC and the ASC receives reports from all of the committees and the Board to allow information to be distributed through the area network. The ASC represents the rank and file members of the Royal Club.

In recent years the whole function of the ASC has come into question, and many have wondered if it performs any useful function at all, the Board making all the major decisions. Several committee members have openly expressed disillusionment of their position. New President Bill Marshall has pledged to change this. In the October Scottish Curler he suggests he would like to see all RCCC committees chaired by ASC members. He says, "The ASC has been sidelined a little bit by the Board. I'd like to redress the balance and place it at the heart of the Club's affairs."

I wonder if we are about to see the first major challenge to the RCCC Board by the ASC, triggered by the National Curling Academy. The minutes say that the ASC is having 'severe doubts over the feasibility of the Kinross project'. That's heavy stuff, indeed!

The building of the National Curling Academy in Kinross is the flagship project for the Royal Club Board at the present time. Outline planning permission is still awaited.

Like many others I was, until recently, very much in favour of the project which would provide new office accommodation for the sport's governing body, and a small curling museum, as well as the rink and facilities for the country's elite curlers.

A number of things have caused my present unease. Firstly, it has been seeing the published increase in costs of the project, from £3.25 million to over £5 million, apparently in the space of a few months. Here's how it has been explained to me. The £3.25m was the budget that was given to the project managers/architects. It was a 'best guess' as to what the facility with the specifications given might cost. The £3.25m did not include VAT which would take it up to over £3.8m – the current £5m does include VAT. VAT works both ways. If it does prove non-recoverable, then the project cost rises from £4.25m to £5m which means that the Kinross Curling Trust has to find the finance for the extra £750k in order to build the facility. The silver lining though would be that, for example, VAT would not be payable by the Trust on the ice charges which would save about £50k per annum on the bottom line and significantly improve its financial viability.

The current £5m estimate follows detailed costings of the Archial plans by Turner and Townsend, the project managers. This could be a cautious estimate. The true cost will only be ascertained when it goes out to tender. The expectations are that the eventual successful quote will come in somewhat lower.

Given this uncertainty over what the project will cost takes me back to the bid last year. The announcement was made on October 16, 2008, see here. The Kinross bid was accepted then, by a special Royal Club sub committee, in preference to Ratho, even though the latter had been accompanied by a business plan, architect plans, outline planning permission, and members' fundraising was already in place. I have never learned exactly why the decision went to Kinross. It does seem somewhat odd. If I'm making a major purchase, the one thing that governs my decision is what it will cost. But cost does not seem to have been a key factor in the decision that was made last year!

Of course, it is not the Royal Club which will run the National Curling Academy. That will be the Kinross Curling Trust. What has been singularly lacking is some good PR from both these bodies to counter the doubters!

What's bothering curlers throughout Scotland is the confusion between building a good curling facility with four sheets to replace the existing Kinross rink, and the National Curling Academy project with its six sheeter, as well as the offices, museum, gym and meeting facilities. Particularly in respect of fundraising. It would seem that the current cost of the former, built to a high standard, could be much less than £2 million. Is an additional £3 million good value for money for the NCA part of the project? And do we really need the two extra sheets in Kinross?

But I think the most significant point made in the ASC minutes is that, "The current elite athletes were happy with the curling facilities at Stirling which were close to the other facilities of the Scottish Institute."

If this statement is correct, and if the top curlers in the country are satisfied with what we currently have, then why are we pursuing the National Curling Academy at all?

The next RCCC Board meeting is on October 13. It will be interesting to see how the Board responds to the ASC's concerns, and if it will seek then to reassure us, the members, that it's not heading for a costly disaster.

Top photo is of the proposed site for the NCA in Kinross © Skip Cottage.