25 Mar 2016

A new Auckland stadium? Think again

9:06 pm on 25 March 2016

If you're tempted to believe there really is a serious debate underway on a new downtown stadium for Auckland, remember the city's promotional punchline: "The Show Never Stops".

What a show it's been over the past week or so. An impressive cast of actors have convincingly delivered their lines, but intermission will soon remind us that this is entertainment, and not real-life.

 Mt Eden Park Stadium. View from Mt Eden Summit

Eden Park Stadium. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

There is no plan to discard the city's premier stadium Eden Park, and spend up to $1 billion on a downtown replacement. There's not even a plan to discuss a plan.

A fortnight ago I sat down for a chat with Chris Brooks, chief executive of council agency Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA).

Mr Brooks is finalising a medium-term stadium strategy for the city, dropping some of the more contentious elements pushed by his predecessor Robert Domm. Neither Eden Park nor a new stadium is part of that.

He reminded me that despite the largely taxpayer-funded $256 million rebuild for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, Eden Park would face another big investment decision in 15 years time.

Mr Brooks also mentioned there were people still keen on the 2006 concept of a downtown or waterfront stadium.

Several days later, a newspaper report told us: "a new football stadium for downtown Auckland is back in play." It may be in play in the media, but in no place likely to make the idea a reality.

There is no site, no funding, and there's a list of strategic and infrastructure decisions ahead of any focus on replacing a profitable stadium early in its latest, quarter-billion dollar life-cycle.

Advocates of the ill-fated 2006 waterfront stadium idea have dusted off designs. But the future of the waterfront is locked into a study of the future needs of the council-owned Ports of Auckland.

Former railyard land owned by Ngati Whatua is also a hypothetical possibility.

But who would build a stadium wherever it might go? Auckland Council, which owns most of the city's sporting venues has no current interest.

It has given no mandate to RFA to explore the notion, and its events arm (Auckland Tourism, Events & Economic Development) ATEED - cited at one point as a backer of a downtown stadium - said it does not have a view on what would be RFA's business.

Chris Brooks of RFA told RNZ News he is focussed on nailing-down the current stadium strategy, and doesn't know why there's talk of planning for a new stadium starting "within weeks".

Eden Park is owned by a Trust Board, on which the Government holds the majority of seats following its RWC investment. It wants to transfer those seats to the council, but that doesn't mean ownership.

The Trust Board is not interested in debate on the future of a stadium which despite planning restrictions is modestly profitable, and has at least a decade before the next cycle of re-investment looms.

Eric Watson, owner of the Warriors, and former co-owner of Hanover Finance which collapsed in 2008 leaving investors $550 million out-of-pocket, has said he'd chip in.

Telecommunications company Vodafone has said it would seriously consider bidding for naming rights. But that's where any hint of funding ends.

Prime Minister John Key said the probability of a downtown stadium is "pretty low".

The only sign of any future discussion is a pledge by centre-left mayoral candidate Phil Goff, to lead a long-term process if elected, but without committing ratepayers money to it.

The stadium show may not stop, but there'll be a long intermission between Acts.