People in Tauranga have been talking about a new sports stadium for years, spending time and money on meetings, campaigns and most recently, a new feasibility study. Meanwhile, sports teams continue to shuttle between Tauranga's Domain for day games and Rotorua's stadium for events at night. Is a solution on the horizon? How much would a new Tauranga stadium cost and how would we fund it? Weekend reporter Dawn Picken explains.
Many Sunday afternoons during rugby season, you'll find the Bay of Plenty Steamers huddled in a scrum, tackling opponents and getting the ball over the line. But for night games, like their home semifinal against Manawatū, the Steamers play at Rotorua International Stadium. That's because Rotorua's stadium has something Tauranga's Domain lacks: floodlights.
Head coach Clayton McMillan has downplayed the effect of playing at home - and away.
"We're grateful more than anything, to have the opportunity to contest a semifinal and the boys are looking forward to getting onto the stadium and putting our best foot forward," McMillan said last week.
"[Home advantage] is pretty significant. There's less disruption in your week, it's a pretty standard training week for us and we enjoy playing in both Rotorua and Tauranga."
But the Steamers draw bigger crowds in Tauranga and their training base and administration hub is in Mount Maunganui. The Domain needed temporary grandstands for the Mitre 10 Cup, which started in August.
Bay of Plenty Rugby chief executive Mike Rogers says the Steamers average 4000-5000 spectators each home game.
"Without any lights we can only host day games in Tauranga so this limits the potential opportunities to host games including Steamers and potentially Super Rugby and other international level games. The limited facilities also provide us with significant challenges in providing a venue that meets the standards for teams but also for supporters and broadcasters etc," he says.
Rogers says players are comfortable playing at either Rotorua or Tauranga, "...but do enjoy playing in front of a large crowd on a sunny afternoon at the Domain with its boutique nature".
He says it's difficult to expect large numbers of supporters to travel between Rotorua and Tauranga to attend a game, and playing in two venues provides challenges for staff.
Rotorua's International Venue
Rotorua's International Stadium has seating for more than 20,000 people and is traditionally the venue of local and international sporting events and festivals. Rotorua Lakes Council sport, recreation and environment manager Rob Pitkethley says the venue and staff have a proven record of hosting events including Rugby World Cup games, British Lions, the Phoenix football team, the Warriors, and national and international tournaments including Sevens and Touch.
"The facility has also hosted major events like Te Matatini, music festivals and concerts."
Pitkethley stresses the stadium is part of the wider Westbrook sports precinct, which provides additional fields and space.
"It is used regularly by local sporting codes as well as for regional and national sporting events, along with the likes of an annual National Dog Show and music events and festivals."
The stadium is used by the Performance Training Centre, as well as for cricket indoor net training, sports resilience programmes, and Toi Ohomai classes. Stadium tenants include Central BOP Rugby, WASP, the Referees Association, Dominate Events, BOP Rugby and Geyser Cricket Club.
Now the city's biggest outdoor venue, the stadium was first built in 1911. It's been dubbed 'the Hāngī Pit' by locals and has been renovated several times. The stadium features a covered stand seating up to 4000 with a concrete seating area on the western side of the field. The stadium has floodlights, something Tauranga City Council has not installed at its own domain.
Calls for a new Tauranga stadium have been resounding more than a decade. Terry Leaming - aka Hori BOP - ran for mayor in 2007 on a primary campaign platform of building a 30,000 seat venue. The BOP Steamers super fan continued that focus while running for councillor and again for mayor in subsequent elections.
A proposal for a new sports stadium at Tauranga Domain was presented to councillors in September, 2015 by Tauranga's Civic Amenities Group (CAG). Cost then was pegged at $25 million.
At the time, CAG chairman Paul Adams of Carrus Group told the Bay of Plenty Times they had briefed Tauranga City Council on a package of proposed civic infrastructure projects, including development of a stadium at the Domain with a capacity of about 15,000.
"The Civic Amenities Group has presented a proposal to the elected members and is looking forward to working collaboratively with Tauranga City Council in further costing, then developing, funding and construction of a boutique stadium, " he said.
Embankment Seating International presented preliminary designs and drawings commissioned for CAG. Chief executive Greg Shalfoon says the design can be transplanted "anywhere on the planet", though he and several others say they prefer the Domain as a potential new stadium site.
When contacted last week, Shalfoon told NZME boutique stadiums are a trend worldwide.
"In Tauranga, if it's going to have a full house every time you have an event. It must be diverse enough to cater for concerts and other events."
Shalfoon says his initial 15,000-seat model was estimated at $30 million including a roof over the horseshoe, plus million-dollar giant screen. Today, he says general costs would come in 5 to 10 per cent higher than in 2015.
"If it was $500 million or $100 million, it's a no-brainer, don't do it, but between $30 to $50 million for that type of infrastructure, it's quite achievable and not as painful on the ratepayer."
Shalfoon says Tauranga should consider a 10,000 max seat stadium with the capability of increasing the seating capacity using temporary seating.
CAG member Graeme Horsley recalls what happened when the group presented its vision, which included a variety of amenities, including a stadium, to Council in 2015.
"We got almost laughed out of the chamber. In my personal opinion, we should have a stadium. We're a big city now, we're growing and we need amenities."
Horsley believes the Domain is the ideal place for a stadium.
"Our focus is on trying to bring back a heart to the city and revitalise the city. If we're doing that, the ground needs to be in the city,"
Horsley says while Hamilton has one of the best rugby stadiums in the country, Rotorua's falls short.
"Rotorua's not a great stadium. It's a big embankment-type bowl stadium, but they've certainly got a facility that's better than ours."
The CAG had proposed funding for a new stadium come from a public/private partnership.
"Tauranga needs to break away from the mindset of no increases in rates," says Horsley.
"Tauranga is like - I always compare it to a teenager: they're growing up and they're about to leave home and all sorts of other expenses seem to roll in front of them whether it's university, or cars or buying a house. As they grow up, these costs start to appear and they need to be addressed."
But four years after the CAG's council presentation, there's no new stadium - only a study. NZME reported last December Tauranga City Council had been quietly investigating the issue more than a year. The group commissioned an economic benefit study from the University of Waikato on the impact of a stadium in Tauranga, which was due early this year.
Nigel Tutt, chief executive of Priority one, said it was about getting some facts and "taking the emotion out of it".
Council committed $20,000 towards the total $85,000 cost of a needs assessment, progressing to a full feasibility study if sufficient need for the stadium was established.
Its partners - Sport New Zealand, Western Bay of Plenty District Council, Bay of Plenty Regional Council and Priority One - were also expected to contribute funding, with $10,000 designated for "community contribution".
Tutt told NZME last week: "It's frustrating for the city to miss out on opportunities now, and some work has been going on this area."
In a brief email, Tutt said a needs assessment has been undertaken recently by commercial firm PwC.
"This is the first and most important step in determining whether a stadium is viable. The needs assessment showed that there would be little demand for a large scale stadium, but a smaller facility might work."
Tutt said the group should have more information early next year.
Rogers and others say a new venue would need to support sport and other events for Tauranga and the wider region, which would in turn attract more events.
"The Bay Oval is a great example of the right level of investment in infrastructure that has achieved fantastic outcomes for the City," says Rogers.
Passing the Tests - Bay Oval
More than 9000 fans packed Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui earlier this year for a sold-out match between the Black Caps and India. It was considered the biggest event in the cricket ground's history.
Bay Oval general manager Kelvin Jones says the key to the venue's success is constant evolution. The grounds at Blake Park first hosted international cricket in 2014 and will host a first test match, England versus Black Caps, the 21st of November.
"We've always had a vision and a master plan. It was the only way we could've done it from a financial standpoint," Jones says.
Jones says the group looked at Tauranga's growth when considering money.
"If we had gone out to market from day one and if we were asking for a $15-million to 20-million dollar cricket stadium, we would've been laughed at and it would've gone nowhere."
Jones says there aren't enough funders that can support that level of investment at once.
"Ratepayers are hit with lots of infrastructure costs and the city needs lots of other things. We took the view we'll chip away and do it over time."
The Bay Oval revamp got underway in 2005, adopted as part of the Blake Park sporting precinct future development policy.
The Bay of Plenty Times reported in March council has contributed more than $2 million over 10 years towards the development of a pavilion, public toilets, car parking and lights, as well as providing an annual operating grant.
Council provided land at Blake Park, and local businesses and individuals pitched in, sometimes providing expertise and services at no cost.
The first match at the ground was a club fixture in March 2007. One of the earliest centuries scored there was by future Black Caps' captain Kane Williamson, playing for Bay of Plenty under 19 at the time.
Six 50-metre LED light towers were installed at a cost of about $3.5m at the start of last season. It was part of an overall spend close to $5m that funded a brand new electronic replay screen and scoreboard, and increased seating capacity.
Jones said LED lights, new scoreboard and other ground upgrades last season were made possible by a "phenomenal community effort" – funding from the council, TECT, local businesses, individuals, groups and gaming trusts.
Jones says cricket's a catalyst, not an end result.
"The economic benefit is obvious, even if we're just looking at officials and teams that come to town, never mind spectators we get from out of town. One of the great highlights is feedback we get from people who are really proud. They take ownership of Bay Oval. It's become an iconic thing for the city."
His recommendation to people who want to see a new stadium for Tauranga is plan for a multi-purpose venue (preferably at the Domain) with plenty of parking.
"They just need to start would be my advice. I think Bay of Plenty Rugby should be a bit stronger in this. Find a location, come up with a vision and get started."
Jones says a high-quality facility doesn't have to look that way from the start.
"I think if they're strategic, the city could be looking at a good rugby stadium in 10 years' time."
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell says our city needs a stadium, but not a large one. He says he wants to relieve residents of a rates increase to pay for the facility.
"If a public-private partnership would work, that would be fantastic."
He echoes others who say the venue must be multipurpose.
"Look at stadia around the world: they can accommodate rock concerts, maybe opera in the park...they can operate on every level including festivals. I don't think we can rely solely on the Chiefs or the Steamers. I don't know that if we build it they will come. My philosophy is build with a strategic eye so we can accommodate different events for a growing city."
Rotorua International Stadium
Events the past year and attendance:
Māori All Blacks v Fiji – 15,000.
NZ Māori Rugby League Nationals and IPS Northern Region Touch Tournament – about 4000 each.
Touch nationals (2 events: juniors and seniors) – about 3000 attendance at each.
National Dog Show – about 2000.
Average attendance at BOP Steamers games this season – about 1500.
Source: Rotorua Lakes Council