The stadium shake-up

Dunedin City Council's decision to instigate a review of Forsyth Barr Stadium and the company tasked with running it, Dunedin Venues Management Ltd, is the correct one.

The review, announced by Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull last week, was sparked by the resignation of DVML chief executive David Davies, who intends to leave the position in March after being appointed to the role in October 2009.

Mr Cull has indicated the review will look at the financial, operating and governance models of the stadium and says it may result in changes for DVML and the role of its future chief executive.

Much appears to depend on the findings of the Pricewaterhouse Coopers audit of stadium costs, as well as DVML's six-month financial results, both of which are due to be made public later this month.

The stadium opened to much fanfare last year on the back of the Rugby World Cup and a worldwide television viewership of millions.

Less than 12 months on, the review will provide an opportunity for a fresh, critical look at the facility and, more importantly, where its future lies.

DVML's main role is, and always will be, to ensure the stadium's financial viability.

The bottom line ultimately relies on getting people through the turnstiles, whether that be as a conference facility or as a sporting, cultural or entertainment venue.

The much talked about "multi-purpose" stadium won widespread praise after the Rugby World Cup, being labelled the best stadium in New Zealand by some international media.

The performance of the Highlanders in this year's Super 15 and the increasing numbers of fans turning out to support the home team has highlighted what an exceptional sporting venue it is.

But rugby alone will not pay the bills.

If the facility is to ever to win the hearts and minds of all residents, DVML's decision-makers need to prove it is more than just a rugby venue.

In terms of musical entertainment, there was much chest-beating last year when Sir Elton John became the first major act to play at the stadium. It was seen as a break-through - the stepping stone to a regular flow of international acts.

But since Sir Elton's appearance, the cupboard has been bare.

There was speculation about a big-name act for 2012, but Mr Davies reiterated again last week that the concert market remained "tough" and people needed to be "patient".

While the financial future of the stadium is paramount, DVML must also focus on ensuring the public connects with the venue.

Ratepayers must be allowed to feel "ownership" of the facility.

DVML could go some way to doing that by creating a "community" arm to its organisation.

The stadium doors should regularly be opened - free of charge - to junior sports of all types, as well as school athletic or picnic days.

Yes, this will come at a cost.

However, children - the next generation to carry the cost of this facility - should be allowed to feel the stadium grass between their toes and develop an affinity with the venue.

As recently as three years ago, the Otago Rugby Football Union let entire grades of junior rugby play at Carisbrook on a Saturday.

For all the union's subsequent faults, the move was a master stroke for those children and their parents. Memories of "the day I played on Carisbrook" will remain throughout their lives.

As for Mr Davies' performance, the jury is likely to remain out, at least until his departure next year.

Mr Cull paid tribute to Mr Davies last week, saying he had made a significant contribution in a "pretty challenging" role.

The anger of some towards the stadium will ensure the chief executive position will always be under the microscope and, in many ways, be a thankless task, no matter the salary.

Mr Davies has said that the challenges and ongoing criticism surrounding the project were not factors in his departure.

He felt sadness at being unable to heal the "fissures" within Dunedin caused by the stadium project, but said he suspected that would "take generations".

The new chief executive will undoubtedly require a thick skin, but also the vision to help heal those wounds.

 

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