By VICTORIA CARTER*

When taxi-drivers say as they drive past Quay Park, "That's where the new arena is going," you know things are moving. Auckland City is not dragging the chain on its indoor arena project and we've done lots in the past 18 months.

Last week on the Dialogue page, Phil Warren, chairman of the Auckland Regional Council, said the Auckland City Council was still debating basic aspects of the Quay Park arena project. He is wrong.

We have made significant moves. The previous council acquired the land. We have consulted extensively with the public, held open days on the site, called for expressions of interest from private- sector partners, and selected three potential private investors.

Now, after a vote of 14-3 in support, we are seeking public-sector funding to get the project off the ground. Of the $100 million cost, the private sector has said it will put up $50 million. Auckland City is hunting for alternative public funding for at least half of the remainder.

Yes, Quay Park is more expensive but you get what you pay for, and if Auckland gets a second-rate facility, we just won't attract the events.

Only last week, Auckland City councillors Kay McKelvie, Vern Walsh and myself met Auckland Labour MPs and the Minister of Tourism to present the arena proposal. We emphasised the need for Government funding of significant regional projects, particularly Quay Park.

If Auckland wants an arena as early as 2003, funding needs to be found promptly so the final tenderer can be selected. There is at least six months of resource management consent processing and it would take a minimum of 20 months for design and construction. This is an optimistic schedule.

An arena at Quay Park would not duplicate facilities. The City of Auckland and, in fact, the country has nothing like the Quay Park indoor arena. New Zealand lacks a 10,000 to 12,000-seat indoor facility to entice international artists and shows to cross the Tasman.

The only New Zealand arena is in Christchurch but, at around 7500 seats, it is smaller than that proposed for Auckland. An Auckland facility is needed by an increasing number of sporting codes. Netball and basketball are examples.

There is misunderstanding over the difference between an arena and a stadium. A stadium is a large-capacity (30,000 to 80,000 seats) outdoor sports facility, while an arena is a medium-capacity (10,000 to 25,000) indoor sports, entertainment and convention facility arranged around a basketball court or ice-hockey rink with retractable seating.

An arena would bring funds into the local economy, conservatively and independently estimated at between $90 to $120 million a year. It would benefit all the people of Auckland, not just those living within Auckland City.

For years, local councils failed to agree on where to site an arena. So in 1997 the Hillary Commission, an independent party, was called in to assess the best location. All the city councils and the ARC agreed to the criteria and to abide by the recommendations of the commission's review panel.

The commission found the best location to be Quay Park rather than Mt Smart or Manukau City, although recommending a 12,000 to 13,000-seat arena rather than the original 18,000-seat capacity.

Mr Warren's preferred venue is Mt Smart with its Ericsson Stadium. Certainly, it has already proved workable in terms of traffic and parking. However, it is in the middle of a noisy industrial area, which would give rise to serious conflicts for daytime and midweek functions.

The Hillary Commission also stated that "the review panel believes the lack of associated hotel, restaurant and alternative entertainment facilities, along with more limited access for public transport users, means Mt Smart is a second-best location for an indoor stadium in Auckland."

The commission believes Quay Park provides a unique opportunity. "The people of Greater Auckland have the chance to develop a state-of-the-art facility near the heart of downtown. It is an opportunity that very few cities have the chance of fulfilling. Auckland should take it.

Wellington has Te Papa and the new outdoor stadium paid for by the Wellington City Council with significant Government funding. Auckland has 1.6 million international tourists (and many more domestic visitors) arriving annually and we have 1.2 million residents. Some 81 per cent have said they support an arena.

It is time to forget about where our boundaries are. The experts have spoken on the best site. It is time for an Arena of New Zealand in central Auckland, just as the Hillary Commission recommended.

* Victoria Carter chairs the Auckland City Council's city attractions committee.