Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Stadiums decision a real no-brainer

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Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Eden Park. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Auckland councillors have an easy choice to make on Thursday when they consider the future of the region's various stadiums.

Either they agree to centralise all major oval-ball games at the splendiferous newly upgraded Eden Park and start retiring debt on that facility, or they pour an extra $60 million that the council doesn't have into upgrading the Warriors' home at Mt Smart Stadium. There are also the problems of Western Springs Speedway and North Shore Stadium, of which more later.

It should be a short debate.

In June, Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) began consulting sporting bodies with a proposal to rationalise use of the region's major venues - Eden Park, which underwent a $250 million makeover in preparation for last year's Rugby World Cup, Mt Smart, Western Springs and North Harbour Stadium.

The stadiums all needed on-going financial support from the council and, hence, the ratepayers and all faced a difficult future. Mt Smart's ageing infrastructure required an upgrade costing upwards of $60 million to bring facilities into the 21st century and meet the desire of the rugby league franchise to increase seating capacity from the present 22,000 to the international standard of 30,000. Both it and North Harbour require on-going operating funding support.

As for Eden Park, it struggles to break even and has debts of $55 million to service. It lacks "sufficient capacity to fund depreciation, service debt or provide for new investment", RFA's report to the council says.

The various stadiums are operated and maintained under separate ownership and governance structures and compete with one another for a limited number of events.

In addition, "years of ad-hoc development mean training facilities ... for major sporting codes are not up to standard", putting at risk the region's ability to attract and retain top sporting talent.

While recognising "most major stadiums require some form of public subsidy ... there is a risk that the level of subsidy from Auckland ratepayers for Mt Smart and North Harbour stadiums is higher than necessary because of the sub-optimal use of the existing regional resources".

RFA rules out a $60 million upgrade of Mt Smart as unaffordable and suggests the various ownership trusts work together to identify opportunities to share operation and management resources in the interest of regional cost saving.

It also recommends that Eden Park become the primary venue for rugby union, rugby league and Auckland Cricket games, while Mt Smart Stadium could remain league's base for central administration and training.

Treading warily, RFA also proposes that while recognising "Auckland Cricket's commitment to Eden Park", it was interested in exploring "the suitability of Western Springs as a possible location for future test cricket and local cricket games".

Before that can be considered, however, there's the issue of the speedway, which has a contract for Western Springs expiring in June 2014.

Rather neatly, RFA has completed that circle by suggesting Mt Smart "would provide growth potential for Speedway Promotions Ltd that currently does not exist at Western Springs".

For many of the people living within earshot of Western Springs, such a move would be greeted with much delight. It's the solution I suggested back in 2004. The messy and unsatisfactory solution for all sides then was a compromise on noise levels, and a restriction on the timing and frequency of race meetings. In return for that, the speedway was allowed to remain in inner-city suburbia. On second thoughts, I might have proposed Waikaraka Park in Te Papapa. Both it and nearby Mt Smart have the advantage of being in an industrial zone, well away from most homes. Somehow, RFA seems confident it can combine rugby league training facilities, speedway and athletics within this venue.

As for North Shore Stadium, we're told NZ Football was the only major sporting code to show a strong preference for it, but that "it should be retained to preserve future options".

The regional grand solution is going to require compromises all round. No doubt some of the more vocal Eden Park neighbours will be wary. But with the new railway station and assorted other infrastructure installed for the World Cup, and the major upgrade, Eden Park is now Auckland's premier stadium, and the task is to make the best use of it possible.

Rationalising regional assets was one of the driving forces of the local government amalgamation process. It's great to see it actually happening.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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