8 May 2016

Does Wellington need a 12,000 seat indoor arena?

It's the start of city council election season in Wellington, and I thought I'd look at the detail behind some of the big campaign ideas doing the rounds.

First up: beware any politician who pledges to build a new 10,000-12,000 seat indoor stadium in Wellington in the run up to the City Council elections this October. It sounds like a great idea, until you ask some difficult questions. For example: 

Q: Has Wellington City Council finished paying off debt for building the Westpac Stadium?
A: WCC hasn't started paying back the $15 million debt incurred in 1998 – it was added to the City Council’s general debt, which currently sits around the $500 million mark. The interest payments for WCC’s stadium debt are now around $1 million a year. The Regional Council's $25 million stadium loan will be paid off in 2018.

Q: What happens to the Westpac Stadium if we move the Wellington Lions and Phoenix to the new 10,000 stadium?
A: The Westpac becomes a white elephant, with only half a dozen Super Rugby games and an All Blacks test match if we're lucky. Plus the occasional extravaganza like the Edinburgh Tattoo. Less use doesn't equate to lower maintenance – the grass still has to be mown and the building still has to be looked after. 

Q: Okay, so let's leave the sports at the Westpac. But a covered 10,000-12,000 seat arena would be a great asset for big gigs. Let's build it!
A: Not so fast. The TSB Arena (another WCC asset) has a capacity of 5,655. I agree it's not the greatest venue in the world, but how many events is Wellington going to host where the TSB Arena isn't big enough, and that need to be under cover? How many times a year do the likes of Guns’n’Roses come to town – maybe half a dozen? Are we seriously talking about building a venue that will get such limited use? Even band promoters think it's a bad idea

Q: But it'd be cool to have an awesome indoor arena for big music acts, and we'd miss out if we don't build one!
A: Yes it would be great, and yes we might miss out. But while there are many advantages with living in a small city, there are also some downsides. This is one of them.

Marge vs the Monorail (1993)
Q: Aren't ratepayers already already spending quite a bit to upgrade the Basin Reserve?
A: Correct. The City Council has just signed off $21.2 million over the next decade for the Basin's redevelopment. Did I mention we haven't started paying off our late 1990s debt on the stadium? 

Q: Any idea of how much the new arena would cost
A: Figures haven't been worked up yet, but as a comparison the ASB Centre in Kilbirnie cost $47.5 million back in 2007, and the Westpac Stadium cost $130 million in the mid-1990s. A rough ball park figure would put the cost of a new 10,000-12,000 arena at around $60-85 million - around half the cost of the $134.4 million for the new convention centre and film museum.

Q: Could we have a monorail running between the railway station and the new mini-stadium?
A: That's an excellent idea – already covered in The Simpsons. Because there are definitely no similarities between Wellington and Springfield when it comes to wasteful spending.


The City Council's overriding objective for sports venues should be to work with our regional partners across government, sport and the to ensure we have a stadium with the capacity to host the major events we're likely to get in Wellington. 

Yes it'd be lovely to have a dedicated mini-stadium for the Phoenix and Lions, with the ability to host large events for artists like Madonna, but as a city of 200,000 (and a region of 500,000) the reality is it'd be a financial millstone round every Wellingtonian's neck. We need to develop other tourist infrastructure first: major Wellington events see our existing accommodation stretched to the limits, and friends working in Wellington's tourism sector say the city needs two more large hotels if we're serious about economic growth from tourism. Besides, shouldn't we make some progress on getting our outstanding Town Hall back into operation before we chase after the next hare-brained idea?

So I think we're better to start thinking long term about what the eventual replacement for the Westpac Stadium will look like. That might seem like a long way off, but in the competitive world of hosting major sporting events a lack of roof and inflexible capacity will make the Westpac less attractive as other stadia across Australasia are upgraded: the New South Wales Government has just signed off a major refurbishment of Sydney’s Olympic stadium (with demolition of the 17 year old building seriously considered). Athletic Park hosted our major sporting events for a century – no-one seriously believes the same will be true for the Westpac.

Cardiff's Millennium Stadium – configured for concerts
So the eventual replacement will probably be built for a rectangular pitch. Everyone prefers watching cricket at the Basin, and there have only been barely a dozen games where attendance has been higher than the Basin’s 13,000 capacity. Building a multipurpose stadium round an oval pitch is a huge design compromise – so we’re much better to cement the Basin’s reputation as one of the world’s great cricket venues with an extra 5,000 seats.

And a new stadium in Wellington will have a roof. The total capacity will be a little higher than Athletic Park's 39,000 (and definitely more than the Westpac's 35,000 seats), with a layout that avoids the notorious 'sea of yellow' evident for less attended events – perhaps with tiers that can be blocked off for smaller fixtures, or by using drapes. The Welsh have done this successfully with Cardiff's Millennium Stadium – and scaled down version of this would work well in Wellington. 

But this is a conversation to be had in the 2020s. We get one chance every generation to build a major sports facility that adds to the city. Until then we need to make the most of what we've got – and avoid pouring money into 'great Wellington assets' that'll be operational and financial disasters from the outset. 

In the meantime, here's the NBR's Tim Hunter discussing the latest outbreak of the 'stadium virus' in New Zealand. And do try and track down the Monorail episode of the Simpsons, as it didn’t end happily for Springfield. You’ve been warned, Wellington.

First published by Scoop on April 28th, 2016