University Oval lights proposal gets $1m

The future of the University Oval looks brighter after the Dunedin City Council voted to commit $1 million to new floodlights at the cricket venue.

The decision came at yesterday's long-term plan deliberations after impassioned pleas on both sides of the argument during a more than two-hour debate.

Councillors divided into two camps while arguing for the economic benefits of top-level cricket, and against spending while rates and debt levels remained a concern, before voting 9-6 for the project.

The decision meant the council would contribute nearly half the expected $2.1 million cost of installing the floodlights later this year, subject to a list of conditions agreed by councillors yesterday.

However, a revelation the council's books showed nearly $2 million in unspent interest savings, confirmed by council staff yesterday afternoon, meant the council's contribution would not drive up rates.

The deal was also expected to secure top-level international cricket at the venue - including matches against Australia, India and England - for at least the next eight years.

New Zealand Cricket had offered the guarantee if the project went ahead, and it appeared to sway wary councillors yesterday.

Cr Richard Thomson led the push for the project, pointing to the social benefits of local fans seeing top players and teams in the flesh.

But he also pointed to the economic benefits of teams, travelling fans, match officials and broadcasters spending time in the city, while images of it were beamed to an international audience.

''That's real money coming into the city and that's real promotion for the city. I don't think we should underestimate that.''

His argument won vocal support from councillors including Neville Peat, who said it was about more than just ''sports prestige''.

''It's about the way we develop the city, the way we portray it, and the way we add to its economic development.''

Cr John Bezett said cricket was on ''a bit of a roll'' in Otago, and needed support, while Cr Andrew Whiley said the lights would help turn University Oval into a ''multi-use'' venue.

Cr Andrew Noone also cited economic benefits and ''massive'' television coverage as reasons to support the project, while deputy mayor Chris Staynes was a more tentative supporter.

Mike Lord believed the decision was simple.

''It's our ground ... I think the least we can do is support them.''

Others disagreed, including Cr Lee Vandervis, who insisted the council was again subsidising ''superstar sport'' when its focus should be on affordable, useful community facilities.

''It's about priorities ... this really isn't a priority for us at the moment.

''We are here to provide the facilities that our community needs, and our community doesn't currently need blazing lights at night for a few cricket games down at Logan Park.''

Cr Aaron Hawkins joined others opposed to the funding, saying the Otago Cricket Association proposal was initially ''porous'' and, even after refinement, still lacked ''rigour''.

Any other group with a project would ''really struggle'' to secure 50% funding from the council, and allocating so much of the council's interest savings risked robbing the arts and culture strategy of money, he warned.

That would be ''an insult to our community'', he said.

Cr Kate Wilson was ''really surprised'' the floodlights proposal had survived to be considered yesterday, and criticised the ''high price'' that came with live sport.

''That's beyond comprehension to me.''

Cr Hilary Calvert said the interest savings used to fund the lights was not ''free money'', and could be used to offset rates or reduce debt, ''both of which are dear to the hearts of our citizens''.

Cr Jinty MacTavish also opposed the funding while there were so many demands on the council's budget, but suggested a smaller amount, of $500,000, could be acceptable.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull agreed with her but the group's opposition was not enough to sway the vote against the project.

Councillors also agreed to add a set of conditions for Otago Cricket to comply with, in return for the funds.

That included evidence of a contractual agreement with New Zealand Cricket, guaranteeing matches, and confirmation Otago Cricket was able to raise the rest of the funds needed for both the floodlights and an expanded capacity.

Dunedin's city branding would also be required on the light towers, design requirements would seek to maximise the efficiency of the lights, and input would be sought from the city's new dark skies advisory panel.

chris.morris@odt.co.nz

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