Alarm at O Week venue shift

Police fear next year’s Orientation Week could spiral out of control after news events will not be held at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.

Since 2011, the Otago University Students’ Association has held major O Week events, including the toga party, at the stadium, which has been credited with helping reduce the notoriously out-of-control drinking once associated with the week.

But the financial effect of Covid-19 has prompted the OUSA to move away from the stadium, as it is no longer viable to hire.

Alcohol harm prevention officer Sergeant Ian Paulin said not having a larger venue like the stadium for students was risky and could lead to more uncontrolled events.

"O Week in a non-controlled environment, there's potential for it to spiral out of control.

"The last thing we want is the students to go ‘Oh there's no toga party this year, we'll just do it’. You can imagine what that would look like. And once the genie's out of the bottle, it's pretty hard to stop it.''

The saving grace was having several months before Orientation to plan, he said.

"There is going to be an impact on policing, there is going to be an impact on licensed and unlicensed drinking and parties.

"We've got a few balls in the air with regards to trying to mitigate the risk of, particularly first-year students, new people to the city coming in and not having those traditional O Week large events at the stadium."

The University of Otago shared the police’s concerns.

A spokesman said it had seen considerable value in OUSA’s relationship with the stadium, "which provides a safe and suitable venue for a number of larger-scale student events, including orientation".

"We share the concerns of other agencies regarding alternative venues and will continue to work closely with OUSA to maximise safety."

OUSA chief executive Debbie Downs said while the association would normally bring international artists, which attract larger crowds, this was probably not possible for 2021.

"With this in mind we have chosen to move night-time Orientation events to Starters Bar and Union Hall."

Orientation week events usually attracted crowds of about 3500, she said.

The capacity of Starters Bar is 400 and the capacity of the Union Hall is 1400.

Ms Downs said the Union Hall was the main venue for Orientation for many years before it was shifted to the stadium.

OUSA worked alongside stakeholders in the community to help ensure the safety of students, she said.

"Any student-organised events can be registered through Good One to help with event safety ... We will be pushing the Good One register for students who choose not to attend organised events."

Ms Downs said differing alert levels could also mean the possibility of large events being cancelled.

"If we are at a higher alert level we will adjust events to meet the requirements," Ms Downs said.

The venue change was revealed in a hearing before the Dunedin District Licensing Committee addressing an application for OUSA-owned Starters Bar to extend its hours.

Dunedin Venues chief executive Terry Davies was "surprised" by the news, as it had not been discussed with him.

"It is entirely OUSA’s call, as the stadium is a venue for hire and OUSA owns the event.

"During this very unsettling and challenging time, many events that have been booked have had to postpone or cancel."

Mr Davies said history showed Dunedin Venues could host any numbers required by OUSA, was always looking to accommodate OUSA events and would keep working to meet its needs.

"We respect their decision, as we do many other event providers who have also been forced to cancel or reschedule."

Additional reporting Daisy Hudson


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