By BERNARD ORSMAN
Auckland was gleaming in the spring sunshine when Kelly Lowes and two girlfriends arrived in town hyped up to see the sultry Latin hunk Ricky Martin shake his bon-bons.
After a seven-hour drive from Hastings, detouring via Tauranga to pick up friends Sue Waite and Sharon Shearer, the trio were left lamenting the last-minute postponement on Saturday of the pop star's only New Zealand concert.
Not even some shopping therapy at Victoria Park Market and a $200 win at Sky City Casino could lift the spirits of the women, who had saved $400 each and left husbands looking after young children to see their heart-throb.
First, dodgy springtime weather and contractual problems delayed the outdoor concert at Ericsson Stadium.
Then more than 20,000 fans got soaked as Sunday rain lashed the dazzling mix of salsa, mambo and samba from Ricky Martin fronting a red-hot band and a dance troupe.
Kelly Lowes, a regular concert-goer who has seen the Bee Gees, Billy Idol and Eric Clapton perform in Auckland, says Ricky Martin turned on an excellent all-singing, all-dancing performance.
But she was unable to hear clearly from her seat in the grandstand when he spoke to the audience. An indoor concert would have been much better.
This situation emphasised that although Auckland may have expensive open-air stadiums (and two racecourses with modern grandstands and facilities), it is still missing out on some major entertainment.
Australians will have none of Auckland's problems with the weather when Ricky Martin performs three indoor concerts at the 12,000-seat Sydney Entertainment Centre, the 13,000-seat Brisbane Entertainment Centre and the huge new 55,000-seat Colonial Stadium in Melbourne.
Beyond the ageing Supertop tent alongside Ericsson Stadium, capacity 12,000, Auckland lacks a state-of-the-art indoor arena capable of taking big-budget international shows.
Manolo Enchave, an Auckland-based agent for the Australian promoter Michael Chugg, says many artists who tour Australia are giving New Zealand a miss because Auckland lacks a suitable indoor venue.
Enchave said Sting, who performed at the North Shore Events Centre in 1997, vowed never to come back, and Bruce Springsteen is not coming to New Zealand after an Australian tour next month.
Shows that have bypassed New Zealand in the past three years include Disney on Ice, Status Quo, Deep Purple, Shirley Bassey, the Eurythmics, Boy George and the Kirov Ballet.
This situation has not been lost on local body politicians, who have been talking for years about the need for an indoor arena capable of seating more than 10,000 people.
The need has become more apparent with the opening in 1998 of the WestpacTrust Centre in Christchurch, built at a cost of $34.7 million and financed largely by the Christchurch City Council out of spare cash. The indoor arena has seating for 8800.
It was an embarrassment to Auckland when Neil Diamond passed through on his way to perform four concerts in Christchurch.
Mike Kelly, the Canadian head of a Thai company with a management contract to run the centre, says it would be a "win, win" situation for Christchurch and Auckland to have two indoor arenas of similar size.
But instead of planning an arena with seating for 10,000 to 15,000 people, Auckland would be better off meeting its long-term needs by providing seating for 15,000 to 18,000 people.
Another source of envy for Aucklanders has been regular full houses of 30,000 fans to support the Wellington rugby team at the new $128 million WestpacTrust Stadium, already an icon in the capital, which is dubbed the cake tin for its distinctive round covered stand.
Auckland City councillor, musician and promoter Gray Bartlett said anyone who had watched Wellington play at home this season or seen the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in all its splendour at the Wellington venue would appreciate how enthusiastically people responded to an excellent entertainment stadium.
Mr Bartlett, who with Victoria Carter and Kay McKelvie are the only Auckland City councillors pushing hard for an indoor arena at Quay Park on land near the old Auckland Railway Station, said the council should do what Sydney did in getting ready for the Olympics without getting sidetracked or diverted by politics.
Easier said than done.
Auckland plans for an arena at Quay Park are balanced against impending costs on Britomart and rapid transit, and stadium envy across Auckland.
Auckland Mayor Christine Fletcher is sitting on the fence when it comes to supporting the arena. She is not sure whether ratepayers could afford a minimum $50 million share for a project costing between $100 million and $120 million when there are pressing transport costs just around the corner.
Three groups shortlisted to build and manage the stadium have said a public investment of $50 million is necessary before they will commit themselves further, and the council has voted to consider providing that sum next year. Eighty-one per cent of Aucklanders support the idea.
Another handicap is the Auckland Regional Council, whose chairman, Phil Warren, is pursuing a plan to build an indoor arena alongside Ericsson Stadium on the site of the Supertop tent at a cost of $43 million.
But there is little likelihood that Ericsson will get an indoor arena because it is dependent on cities such as Auckland and Manukau for finance. A three-man Hillary Commission panel and its advisers were unanimous in their support for Quay Park, saying it was the best site for an indoor stadium to meet the needs of the people of Greater Auckland now and into the future.
"Internationally, major sports and entertainment facilities are increasingly being located in the centre of major cities, with the limiting factor usually being the lack of a suitable central site," they said in a report. "It is an opportunity that very few cities have the chance of fulfilling. Auckland should take it."
Manukau is unimpressed with the Hillary Commission's view and is pushing ahead with its own plan to build a $40 million multicultural arts, sports and entertainment centre in a bold declaration of the city's Polynesian roots.
Manukau Mayor Sir Barry Curtis and local businessman Noel Robinson, who heads the trust that wants to build a 15,000-seat outdoor arena, 2500-seat indoor venue, art gallery and 700-seat auditorium, are confident it stacks up. The trust plans to announce naming sponsors to the Pacific Arena before Christmas. The Manukau City Council has contributed $15 million to the project from the sale of land adjacent to the arena.
The South Auckland proposal has the potential to drag away business from already underused venues and be in competition with Quay Park.
Already, stadiums such as North Harbour are feeling the competition for business by losing the Kingz football team to Ericsson and plans are afoot at Eden Park, the traditional home of Auckland rugby and cricket, to improve the number two sports fields next to the main ground to attract soccer and rugby league.
Eden Park chief executive John Alexander says that to survive, overseas stadiums offer a multitude of sports and commercial activities such as day tours, merchandising shops, cafes, restaurants, functions, conferences and accommodation.
He is preparing a five-year plan for Eden Park, only 12 months after the ASB conference grandstand and night lights were built at a cost of $35 million.
The North Shore Events Centre, predominantly a community facility, has begun a $7 million redevelopment to increase seating from 3500 to 5000 and become the home for the Auckland basketball franchise. Franchise owner Ian Shaw said the team needed a 5000-seat stadium to gain entry to the Australian competition.
If any venue has been embroiled in local politics it has been the twin stadium proposal for Hamilton.
The original $43 million Tainui concept was scrapped last November when the cost grew to more than $50 million.
The council is dithering over whether to contribute $9 million towards a fresh $30 million proposal.
The plan revolves around Rugby Park, a simple name for a simple ground needing new turf, new stands and lights to bring it up to international standard. It also involves spending $2.5 million upgrading the nearby WestpacTrust cricket ground.
At North Harbour, the stadium trust is faced with having to reschedule an $18 million debt and the loss of the Kingz. Trust manager Chris Aiken said there was a desperate need for a regional stadium strategy.
"We don't have a regional approach to getting major events. It's piecemeal. Everyone is struggling to do their own thing ... It is typical of Auckland planning."
The ARC listed a regional outdoor stadium management strategy in its strategic plan two years ago, but its business director, Jaine Lovell-Gadd, said nothing had been done to date.
By BERNARD ORSMAN