Unholy alliance behind stadium funding

Jolyon Manning writes an open letter to Otago regional councillors.

Like many others, I am deeply disturbed by the possible reckless commitment of major optional capital projects currently envisaged for implementation by the Otago Regional Council.

An estimated $37.5 million for the proposed Dunedin Stadium and perhaps up to $40 million for the fancy new waterfront administration palace.

In the decades of service as a principal advocate for the Otago region, I have never seen such extravagant spending on such projects.

The scale of apparent Dunedin City Council commitments of ratepayer monies is quite unprecedented.

When I think back to the arguments in earlier decades against supporting penny-pinching allotments from council funding for worthwhile projects, I cringe.

The ORC long-term plan hearings last year revealed an almost total rejection by ratepayers of involvement by this council of such a large gift in the interests of our more passionate rugby followers.

My lengthy term as independent chairperson of the present indoor stadium (at that time the largest such venue in New Zealand, now an ice-skating rink), has given me a unique perspective of some of the challenges that lie ahead in the pursuit of a profitable and sustainable stadium operation on this scale.

I have for several years watched with special interest the workings of the provincial Otago Forward group of district mayors and a few chosen business partners. Unfortunately, these meetings were sheltered from public scrutiny.

The Otago Regional Council has accomplished some worthwhile objectives during the course of its work in the past decade or so.

But its employment as a taxing conduit for raising significant monies required for the stadium was surely never envisaged as a basic commitment in the service of the people of Otago.

This project has been skilfully introduced through the back door by an unholy alliance of aggressive chairpersons and chief executives from the top down.

If the ORC is to continue on its profligate journey at ratepayers' expense, then I can suggest a number of issues more deserving of our collective attention.

As one of the most energy-rich regions in New Zealand, why is it that we give so little attention to the pursuit of added value employment and production of goods and services?

Why do we not investigate a major up-to-date, carbon-emission friendly, monorail service that would provide a more direct link between Dunedin and Queenstown? This would give added purpose to our unique collection of tourism assets.

Why is it that today we have no professional soil scientist working south of Lincoln in a region where our catchment authority pioneers so insisted on the most careful management and protection of our limited versatile fertile soils?

Have the Otago Regional Council leaders placed its key environmental protection role at a lower level than its sister regional councils in Canterbury and Southland, which call themselves environmental councils?

If the ORC were to provide ratepayer-funded assistance for the proposed stadium, where do the boundaries of legitimate profligacy end?

This well contrived (and expensive) but quite inadequate public forum discussion, and many back-room contrivances, have now continued for a couple of years. The stadium promoters are hell-bent to push the project ahead, with apparent political support at council level.

There are some perfectly legitimate capital projects deserving of public support through the rating process. But despite all the cosy words of comfort from the leading project advocates, the bottom line in this project is for a relatively small coterie of lifetime rugby football enthusiasts.

Whatever happened to the much touted user pays philosophy in local government funding?

There are good things happening in Otago these days, but this is just over- extravagant.

After all, we still have Carisbrook.

I did not envisage that this project would so dominate the local body agenda for so long, but now is the time for more a candid forward-looking vision of what Otago is really about.

Jolyon Manning is a former chief executive of Otago Council Inc, and Dunedin city councillor.


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