The clock is ticking more quickly towards a new stadium for Christchurch. David Williams reports.

A new Christchurch stadium is likely to take a big slice of the Government’s $300 million fast-track rebuild fund.

Christchurch Rebuild Minister Megan Woods is dropping big hints, with caveats. She tells Newsroom her Budget bid for a $300 million fund has been lodged, but isn’t certain, that a business case still has to stack up, and that she’s keen on local people deciding which projects they want the money applied to.

But her comments about a new stadium, to replace the temporary one hastily built in Addington after the devastating 2011 quake, leave little doubt that the Government and the city council see it as essential, not just to snare high-profile sports games but as a multi-purpose venue to hold concerts and other events.

“I think it was quite a remarkable feat to get a stadium up as quickly as we did, and it’s certainly served Christchurch well over the last seven years, but I don’t think anyone sees that as our long-term future,” Woods says, following meetings in Christchurch last week with rugby and rugby league bosses.

“We know that we’re not getting All Black Tests. We know we’re not getting those big events. I think there’s a clear understanding within the city, beyond just the sporting codes, that we are going to require a new stadium and that it’s not just for the sporting community it’s also about the economic development that goes around those big events and what it means for the city.”

The Christchurch City Council has earmarked $254 million for a new stadium, on a six-hectare block bounded by Tuam, Madras, Hereford and Barbadoes streets. But according to its latest budget documents, work isn’t scheduled to start until 2022. Woods explains that away as a matter of timing – that the council’s budget documents needed to be put together before central Government’s Budget in May.

“One of the things I’ve asked is that we actually can have a look [at the stadium project] with the capital acceleration fund, working with the council.”

Top-class stadium seen as a right

In sporting-mad New Zealand, the business case for sports facilities (think the extension to Eden Park before the 2011 Rugby World Cup, or Auckland upgrades for hosting the America’s Cup) is an easy sell. In Canterbury, with its rugby pedigree, a top-class stadium isn’t deemed a luxury but a right.

However, since the 2011 earthquake, which toppled buildings and killed 185 people, Christchurch’s temporary AMI Stadium has hosted four All Blacks games (against Ireland, 2012, France, 2013, Argentina, 2015, and South Africa in 2016), while Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium has hosted five, against stronger opposition (South Africa, 2012, Australia, 2013, England, 2014, Wales, 2016, and Australia, last year). Both cities hosted a Lions game, against Super rugby sides the Crusaders and Highlanders, respectively.

Dunedin is viewed as a model of how things can be done in Christchurch, Woods says, but it has a challenge when it comes to accommodation. “You have people staying as far away as Timaru, for some of the big events that are hosted at the stadium.”

A big stadium for Christchurch is strategic, she argues, in comments that could be written straight into the yet-to-be-written business case. “This is also about the South Island’s capacity, which I think is a really important thing – to think about how we have that South Island capability of hosting things, that they don’t just stay in the North Island. I feel that very passionately as a South Islander.”

Events are a major focus for the city’s promotions and economic development agency, ChristchurchNZ. It has asked the council for an extra $1.4 million, much of which will be used to bid for concerts, sports matches and cultural festivals.

Woods says the Government wants to help the city council firm up its pitch for Government money – saying it won’t wait for a business case to land on its desk. “We’ll work constructively with council so that they’re not spending a whole lot of time and energy and resource putting up a business case that isn’t going to succeed.”

Last August, in the heat of the general election campaign, the Christchurch Stadium Trust released a “pre-feasibility” study which settled on a $496 million stadium for Christchurch – a 25,000-seat covered stadium (with 5000 extra temporary seats), with a retractable playing field.

At the time, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel called the study a “good starting point”. Woods isn’t so charitable, describing it as a “pre-pre-feasibility study”. “There really was no timeline or no budget.”

Contract torn up

The goal posts were shifted last November, when Woods announced the Government was tearing up an early contract for Christchurch’s proposed metro sports facility, earmarked for an empty block near the city’s hospital. By the end of next month, Crown rebuild agency Otakaro will complete final designs for the metro sports facility. Woods has also asked officials to consider building that facility and a new stadium on the same site, to save money, potentially.

Newsroom puts to the minister that there are obvious benefits to Christchurch from a new stadium. So, is work being done on a business case now?

No, she says, because the final design work and co-location idea need to be explored first. “The work that has been done to date, the pre-feasibility study, is very, very first base. Council wouldn’t be able to put in a business case at this stage. We need to know what the capacity is, how much it’s going to cost – all those kinds of things that are exactly what we’re working through at the moment.”

Cost savings will be essential. Given the high-profile losses of Fletcher Building on Government projects, big construction firms will want the Government to take more risk. Dalziel has already said she’s worried about the city’s ballooning debt, so the council will want to keep a lid on capital costs – and think about the affordability of running the facilities after they’re built.

Then there’s the scheduling of the projects. It would be foolish of the Government to schedule its biggest Christchurch construction contracts at the same time, as that would likely drive up the price of both jobs.

Woods says the proposed Christchurch anchor projects – announced in 2012, many without being budgeted for – involve extraordinary sums of money.

“That’s probably one of the key roadblocks you’ve got to address – how do you pay for these things? And that’s got to be a careful balance between getting fantastic facilities for the city, for the people facing the future, versus what is affordable and what doesn’t put an undue burden on ratepayers.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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