A Sporting Chance

Words by  Nick Walker
Shzee (Shawn Peng) Shzee (Shawn Peng)

Intro: New Plymouth’s sports hub has been called a game changer for sport and recreation in Taranaki. But how will it be? And who stands to benefit the most? 

It’s tough being a parent of sporting kids. Weekends involve traipsing all over town – often in the rain – jostling for the best car parks, juggling different start times and coming up with master plans to catch at least some of your kids’ games. 

New Plymouth’s sports hub won’t solve all of that, but it’ll certainly help. 

Construction on the $90 million facility is due to start at the current New Plymouth Racecourse site in early 2025, with the first stage to be completed around mid-2027. It’s hoped the entire project will be finished by 2030, though the timeline will depend on the final design.

That design is being worked on at the moment, in a collaboration between Sport Taranaki, 17 sporting organisations from 11 different codes, as well as iwi, hapu and other stakeholders. This process will define exactly what sports the hub will cater for, and what kind of facilities they’ll have access to.

Early plans for the hub detail a six-court indoor hub, artificial turfs for hockey, football and rugby, 14 outdoor courts (eight for netball and six multi-use), four community sports fields and two cricket wickets. There’s also informal play spaces, and potential for a gym, cafe and other complementary facilities. However, these plans are by no means set in stone. 

“There’s a definite need within New Plymouth for a facility like this, and it’s more than just a sports hub,” Sport Taranaki CEO Michael Carr says. “It’s not just about traditional sport, it’s about structured and unstructured recreation. It’s fantastic for human connection too, so it’s an intergenerational asset that will fit within the wellbeing of the community.”

Carr says building the sports hub represents a chance to take a holistic look at sporting venues across New Plymouth, including Yarrows Stadium, TSB Stadium and Pukekura Park, to utilise the space we have and provide the biggest benefit possible.

At the hub itself, the final makeup of facilities will be decided on a needs-based model. Sports such as basketball and hockey have already been identified as being largely under-catered for.

Carr says the type of grass playing fields we have for sports such as hockey, rugby and football should only be in use for around eight hours each week. Currently, they’re used twice that much. 

Basketball Taranaki general manager Kevin Fenwick says every year, would-be basketball players are turned away due to capacity constraints.

“New Plymouth leagues run at TSB Stadium on three courts that are also used for netball, volleyball and other events,” Fenwick says. “Basketball only has the courts three nights a week, which means there’s no room to grow. There are school facilities to host the overflow, but having an additional six courts will really help to increase our capacity.”

That increased capacity is sorely needed, as basketball is New Zealand’s fastest-growing sport. Basketball New Zealand figures show there’s been a 45 percent increase in secondary school playing numbers in the last 10 years, and it’s on track to be the most popular sport for high school students next year. Adult participation is also up 46 percent in the last five years.

Those numbers have put huge strain on the facilities. Fenwick says it’s hard enough to find places to play, let alone train.

“TSB Stadium isn’t available for training because it’s pretty well full most of the time hosting games. We have to spread our training around local schools, The Lab in Rimu Street, and other facilities in Stratford, Hawera and Opunake.”

What all of that means is, there’s barely any room left for basketball in Taranaki to grow.

A Sport NZ report in 2019 found an overwhelming number of kiwis want to get more involved in more sport — 63 percent of young people, and 74 percent of adults want to be more active — and a lack of access to facilities is one of the main things that’s holding them back. 

Recently appointed Project Director Steve Bramley says the way people ‘do’ sport is changing too.

“The hub is responding to the space between work and home, or school and home, where people can be active, connect with one another, watch and support, or just hang out.

“The quality of the environment and experience is also important – a safe and vibrant place that’s easy to get to and easy to use, with shelter and quality amenities close to hand.”

Catering for all sports

One of the standout features of the sports hub is the variety of sports that stand to benefit from using it. 

Michael Carr says if you add up all the participants of the codes he’s talking to currently, you’ve got more than 16,000 people. And that’s before the likely rise in numbers once the hub is built. 

You can also add fringe recreational activities, which are set to get opportunities like never before. Kapa haka, martial arts and rock climbing have been mentioned as possible beneficiaries.

“At the TSB Hub in Hawera there’s a small bore rifle club in the ceiling cavity – that’s an example of what we can do,” Carr says. “We can’t be everything to everyone, but we’ll be innovative and creative to squeeze out all the value we possibly can from these facilities. It’s also about the overall network of places in that if something doesn’t fit here [at the sports hub], how else can we cater for it?”

Again, it’s worth reiterating that there is still plenty of water to go under the bridge before final decisions are made.

Parasport faces a weekly battle for space to conduct their activities, and Parafed Taranaki Chair Philip Wells says it’ll be nice for that not to be a problem. 

“We’ll be competing in the same place at the same time as able-bodied athletes, which is a great image of inclusion and accessibility,” he says.

“We come across perceived problems all the time — it might be a venue with stairs, no accessible changing rooms or heavy fire doors, or a court that isn’t appropriate for wheelchairs. All of these things can be limiting.”

There’s a cumulative benefit to having one place for many sports too. 

“Research shows hubbing is really efficient,” says Michael Carr. “Having one central location for a range of activities just makes things easier. You could have one child playing hockey, a safe place for a younger member of the family to play freely, one parent watching and another parent doing a gym session all at once.”

One other sport worthy of a specific mention is horse-racing. The current occupants of the site, racing is also in the conversation as to how it might fit in with the sports hub.

Despite some perception that racing administrators are opposed to the sports hub, Taranaki Racing CEO Carey Hobbs is confident they can co-exist with other sports in a way that benefits them all. 

“The club is wholly supportive of the sports hub, but not of the stadium being in the middle. We have a strong view that it should be placed adjacent to the current stadium, so it doesn’t obstruct the view of the race track.”

There is a separate issue of racing’s lease of the land from the New Plymouth District Council, which is currently being re-negotiated. Hobbs says he’s confident they won’t be going anywhere.

Location, location, location

Michael Carr says there are 4,000 school students within two kilometres of the sports hub site, and all of them immediately stand out as potential beneficiaries.

He’s conscious that fact could skew the benefits towards students of central schools, so he’ll be talking to schools further out about how to make facilities accessible to them too.

In saying that, there’s no getting away from how handy it is for nearby schools to have such a facility within walking distance. 

Mark Luff is the principal of Highlands Intermediate, a little over a kilometre away. He says having easy access to the sports hub during school time will be great, and it’ll also make things much easier for parents after school too.

“A lot of sport happens on weeknights. A parent might have to get one kid to basketball training at 4, another one to taekwondo at 4.30, and another to hockey training somewhere else at the same time. That’s where it gets really niggly, especially when you throw in normal routine stuff like work and getting dinner ready. 

“Having a solution for that, where it all happens at one place, kids can walk there straight from school and be picked up all at once at the end, that’s probably the most significant thing for our community.” 

There’s a point, too, for having such a facility as close to things and people as possible. Being in the middle of town means it’s more or less equal distance for users all over New Plymouth. Being on State Highway 3 gives as much access to southern Taranaki as you could have from the city.  

In terms of improving accessibility to sport, the location of the sports hub could hardly be more ideal. 

Seeing the difference

You can never know the exact impact of a facility like this, but sport in Hawke’s Bay provides a useful reference.

Mitre10 Park opened on the outskirts of Hastings in 2011. It has 18 outdoor netball courts among hockey turfs, an athletics track, multi-use fields, a gym and other facilities.

Hawke’s Bay Netball general manager Tina Arlidge says it’s been great for netball.

“The biggest impact has been on the quality of our competitions. Before, we were split between Hastings and Napier because we needed to host competitions at different venues. Having them all together, both for our secondary and club competitions, has made a huge difference in the quality at all levels.”

Arlidge says netball playing numbers have doubled from 4,000 to 8,000 since the park opened. She doesn’t attribute all of that to the new facility though, and says they didn’t have an accurate picture beforehand because schools ran their own competitions — largely due to a lack of community facilities. 

“It’s great having new courts and a building that’s well away from anything else. Our old facility was right in the middle of Hastings, and car parking was on-street around a whole lot of houses. You’d end up parking blocks away. Now, it’s much better, although you can never have enough car parks.”

Other impacts

As a council-owned asset, the sports hub will mean better quality facilities for each sport that uses it. 

Rather than having to save and fundraise for maintenance and upgrades of facilities they own, sports will lease the hub facilities. That feeds back into the quality of the programs they run, where they can use that money to purchase better equipment, fund travel to tournaments or recruit more numbers instead. 

It’s easy to focus on the benefits of the sports hub for young people, and neglect what it will mean for sporting adults too. Bramley says the sports hub is being designed with all manner of people in mind.

“The hub must cater for all ages, from a range of fitness and movement activities such as boxfit, to strength and balance sessions for adults, to a fitness centre design responding to needs of people with disabilities; and from social sports leagues to sports practices and competitions.”

Just over the road from the sports hub, the Western Institute of Technology sees it as a significant step forward in the value of belonging to Taranaki.

CEO John Snook has been effusive in his support for the project, which he sees as being able to be an extension of WITT’s Bell Street campus.

Snook says the sports hub enables them to blur the lines between education and employment, with students in exercise science, hospitality and other fields able to complement their studies. 

“Our students can get real world experience at the same time as providing a service to the hub, and contributing to a more sustainable business model. It’ll also be great for us to show prospective students that they have an incredible facility right across the road, and they can use it between classes.”

Speaking of economic models, Kevin Fenwick believes the ability to host events at the sports hub would bring a lot of money to the region. 

“There are regional and national basketball tournaments across five different age grades in New Zealand each year, as well as big secondary school tournaments. Because we only have three courts, there’s no chance of hosting those kinds of events here currently. 

“There can be up to 72 teams at the larger tournaments (usually with 12 players per team), and when you add in all their supporters, the revenue that could be generated is significant.”

With basketball just one of a number of sports that could host such events, it’s clear to see the flow on effects for hospitality, retail and other industries. 

Much of these benefits will take years to realise, but it certainly seems that WITT’s description of the sports hub as a “game changer” for the region appears fair. 

It will come at a cost, however. New Plymouth District Council is contributing $40 million towards the sports hub, which was one of a number of large projects signed off under its Long Term Plan earlier this year.

The $3 billion total LTP spend comes with a 12 percent rates rise this year, and an average of 6.1 percent every year for the next nine years. It’s hard to extrapolate out the exact incremental cost of the sports hub alone, and NPDC didn’t provide a figure in time for this article to go to print. 

For now, Michael Carr stresses that collaboration is a key aspect of progressing the design. With so many potential beneficiaries, he sees the cost as an investment in community health. 

“We started with a focus on sport, but we always knew there was a social deficiency in the community, particularly around wellbeing and hauora. The idea was always to weave the two together to allow flexibility and diversity of use within an environment of being active, not just physically, but socially as well.”

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