Could this plan for an Auckland waterfront stadium be different?

Could it have something to it? A chance? Some funding and some hope?

When Newsroom revealed a consortium of business people had proposed a stadium, sunken into the reclaimed land on Bledisloe Wharf, in secret meetings with city officials, a journalist from another publication texted asking why we were getting “wildly excited” about another mirage.

He had half a point. Many in the public would have rolled their eyes too and thought: “Things we’ll never see.”

They might well be right. The political, environmental and financial hurdles to plonking a massive stadium down into the CBD and a working port are almost overwhelming. But. But….

As a few more details emerged from our reporting and elsewhere, even the jaundiced, hype-weary journo ended up this week becoming a bit excited himself in his publication.

Newsroom had asked one independent source who is aware of the plan if the people on this anonymous consortium were serious players, not wide-eyed idealists in search of a monument to their dreams. The answer was an emphatic yes. “They’re not dreamers.”

After our revelation that one financial building block for the waterfront stadium plan could involve the consortium being given rights to develop a housing project at a defunct Eden Park, the chair of the group revealed himself to the New Zealand Herald. Dave Wigmore, a property valuer who previously worked for a decade for Jones Lang LaSalle and was, conveniently, across the issue of Ports of Auckland’s operations and industrial issues in 2012, is chair of the prosaically named Auckland Waterfront Consortium.

He is said to lead a “highly respected” group of local companies in the bid to develop a new stadium. Details of their consortium and its plans could be made public at the end of next week.

They have engaged Auckland public relations firm Wright Communications to work on the campaign – intriguingly the agency which worked this year on a project for the Eden Park Trust. Their lawyers are top tier firm Simpson Grierson.

The consortium reportedly met officials from the Auckland Council ‘family’ of organisations a week ago under the cover of signed non-disclosure agreements, with Mayor Phil Goff not present. Goff did confirm the approach, however, when Newsroom asked about the stadium proposal. 

Eden Park has debts and depreciation costs that hang over its head like a Michael Jones statue, and not enough lawful ways to make money to handle those longer-term obligations by itself. 

The consortium has sought but not secured a meeting with senior central government figures. 

Housing Minister Phil Twyford has received a letter but not a direct briefing and Sports Minister – and of course Finance Minister – Grant Robertson would only say he was aware of the proposal and was “keeping tabs on it”.

The fact the consortium wants to pay for the stadium, and not put Auckland Council and the Government to the political cost of making ratepayers and taxpayers contribute when so much vital infrastructure needs funding, is a big difference from past incarnations of a waterfront arena. The city’s concern over its debt ceiling are immediately assuaged. The Crown’s worries about advancing an Auckland project when a Christchurch stadium and so much else needs building are alleviated.

The stadium owners would need to build-in retail facilities and no doubt a waterfront hotel to stimulate enough revenue to offset stadium operating costs. Even if the Blues, Warriors, All Blacks and their teams of both genders played there regularly it would need to also host big concerts and other events.

Auckland Council’s design champion, Ludo Campbell-Reid, tweeted in response to Newsroom‘s revelations on the waterfront stadium:

“Is fine good enough? Couldn’t it be the best stadium on the planet? Best rugby team. Imagine the buzz in the City Centre on game nights. Imagine the urban composition.”

But the port company will have a firm view. It uses that land at Bledisloe intensively and it is likely to try to safeguard its existing land with vigour given its attempts to reclaim more land from the Waitemata for wharf space and berthing are so controversial. It will not comment on the Auckland Waterfront Consortium’s interest in its land, knowing perhaps that ultimately that is an issue for its sole shareholder, Auckland Council, to deal with.

The fate of Eden Park is vexed politically. It is run by the trust under its own statute and any deal which could offer its nine hectares and assets to a property developer would need to compensate the trust’s beneficiaries Auckland Rugby ad Auckland Cricket, as well as ensure the housing development fitted with the neighbourhood. One observer noted the Government’s two latest appointments to the trust included Victoria Toon, a corporate insolvency expert. The other, interestingly, was Renata Blair of Ngāti Whātua Orākei, which owns land around the Spark Arena in downtown Auckland which has been nominated as a possible site for a waterfront stadium. (Ngāti Whātua’s investment arm is said not to be involved in the consortium’s plans).

Auckland’s Unitary Plan foreshadows increased, higher-rise density of housing along major roads and near public transport facilities. Eden Park is on the busy Sandringham Rd and across the road from the Kingsland rail station. 

Eden Park has debts and depreciation costs that hang over its head like a Michael Jones statue, and not enough lawful ways to make money to handle those longer-term obligations by itself. 

Eden Park Trust chairman Doug McKay told the Herald he met Wigmore, an architect and a lawyer at Simpson Grierson but would not sign their non-disclosure agreement so took the matter no further.

But it could be argued the trust might find a way to continue its mission by effectively joining the new project, tipping in the value of its assets for a significant shareholding in the new venture and once the new stadium is ready, keeping its beneficiaries with a high quality venue and potential revenue source.

If this consortium can convince the Government and Auckland Council that it could build a waterfront stadium for “free” with part of its business plan meaning it then took over Eden Park and delivered housing, the mirage could become a miracle. And that would be something to be excited about.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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