'Vision' of Awatea St overcome by dark clouds

Dave Witherow questions the commitment of the Dunedin City Council to consultation over the proposed new stadium.

The Awatea St "vision" was revealed to the Dunedin public in August 2006, and a few months later an ODT poll showed 82% of respondents in favour.

The stadium "vision", it seemed, was a vaulting and imaginative leap that, capitalising on the Rugby World Cup, would secure Dunedin's place in the sporting firmament.

Three years later, following impassioned debate and the expenditure of many millions, that consensus has vanished.

Support has sunk to an all-time low, and, according to the last, university-conducted poll, almost 80% of those with an opinion are opposed to any public money being spent on the new stadium - an exact reversal of its early approval rating.

How could this turnaround have happened?

The Awatea St venture, in its first incarnation, was beguilingly attractive.

It was to be a futuristic, roofed stadium, containing two large restaurants, function rooms, "sophisticated" bars and cafes, and seating for 30,000 spectators.

Some of the seating would be retractable, allowing concerts and exhibitions, and, as CST spokesman Darren Burden explained, there would be facilities for arts, cultural, social, and equestrian events, together with motorsport spectaculars and other functions "the range and nature of which is growing all the time".

Best of all, it seemed that this glittering vision would be delivered at no cost to the public - the ratepayers remaining " the last port of call", according to CST chairman Malcolm Farry.

This assurance was reinforced two months later (14.10.06), when Mr Farry pronounced that he would leave no stone unturned before seeking a ratepayer contribution.

Many Dunedinites, understandably, were seduced by this manna from free-enterprise heaven.

It was not long, however, before the first dark clouds began to obscure the vision.

The cost of land ballooned, adding $18 million to the original budget.

The anchor tenant - the Otago Rugby Football Union - withdrew, leaving no new anchor in place.

There were difficulties with the foundations, the roof, the grass - and the confidently anticipated private funding was proving hard to identify.

Permanent seating was reduced to 18,000, and "exclusions" began to surface.

Kitchens, bars, restaurants, broadcasting facilities, turnstiles, and scoreboards became extras, rather than parts of the installation. (The independent reviewer, Davis Langdon, warned of "a multitude of exclusions" - listing 30 they considered significant).

The local authorities, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to any symptom of dysfunction.

The DCC and the ORC, ignoring their own successive "lines in the sand", bent over backwards to accommodate the ongoing failure of the CST to fulfil its prescribed objectives.

(The ORC, before its February 11 meeting, this year, was advised by its CEO, Graeme Martin, that the CST had not attained the set of conditions earlier prescribed by the council as essential to its continuing financial commitment.

Mr Martin outlined these shortfalls, and identified no less than 13 areas of risk associated with the proposal.

Reminding the council of its responsibilities, he recommended that "Council will not undertake the new activity of part-funding of the proposed stadium". Needless to say, the council paid no heed).

The "multi-use" attributes of the proposed stadium have largely vanished.

Events organisers in Auckland and Wellington point out that this aspect of the vision is a mirage: "When it comes to putting lots of bums on seats, Dunedin's a dud," said one promoter, Ian Magan, in a typical comment.

The stadium peer reviewers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, confirm this by noting that, apart from rugby, "no other possible uses were identified".

And, as reported on January 8 this year, "behind the scenes, the ODT understands, there have been changes to operational projections that make this project look more risky than it already is".

It is no mystery, therefore, why the tide has turned on the stadium.

It is no longer the same proposition.

Its original specifications have been progressively downgraded, while its cost "not a cent more than $188 million", has quietly gone up by $10 million.

It is essentially a rugby venue, not a multi-use theatre, and rugby, in Dunedin, is unable to make a profit.

The private funding has all disappeared - to be conjured up (maybe), at some future date, as revenue.

The ratepayers, meanwhile, are to carry the can - plus all the risks, should the whole project capsize in the bottomless mud of Dunedin's foreshore.

There is no hurry to build this stadium, in the toils of an economic recession.

There is no hurry at all, for Dunedin will get its three World Cup matches, new stadium or not.

There is no hurry, therefore, for the council to sign a binding contract in the face of so many risks, unknowns, and unprecedented public outcry.

It is time to pause, reflect, and wait for some clarity as to where we, as a city, are going.

The DCC's decision of March 30, to deny further consultation on the stadium, was unworthy of an honest council.

The project has radically changed since the last opportunity for public submissions, and, this being so, further consultation is legally required.

The majority of citizens recognise this, even if the council is in denial.

For integrity to prevail it is merely necessary to wait until the current round of submissions has been completed and evaluated.

After that, its democratic obligations fulfilled, the council may proceed with a clear conscience.

And, should councillors, in their unseemly haste, be disposed to dismiss all of these concerns, they might look no further than their own published consultation policy, where we find this explicit promise: "The council is committed to the principle of consultation, even when it is not required by law."

Is this a serious commitment - or just another line in the sand?

•Dave Witherow is vice-president of Stop the Stadium.


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