The $69 million question

Yarrow Stadium #462 Yarrow Stadium #462

Words by Jim Tucker

As you read this, 11 prominent Taranaki local politicians are due to decide whether to spend up to $69 million of our money.

They are Taranaki Regional Council’s elected councillors and they want it to make the province’s sole major sports arena, Yarrow Stadium, good enough to host an All Blacks test match again.

TRC has come up with eight options on how to do it. On May 21, councillors are expected to confirm the one they favoured before the matter went out for public feedback in late February.

Whatever they decide, everyone can expect to pay more rates for the next quarter century.

In North Taranaki, the total rise for next rating year (from July 1) could be as much as 7.5 percent. That’s about $200 extra for the average residential ratepayer – $87.40 of it for the stadium. Every business could be paying almost $500 each year, whether they’re 
a corner shop or the Warehouse.

Live talked to sports and local government people and found most want the stadium up and running again, but there’s disagreement over the best way to do it – and how far to go.

Any way you look at it, a decision this big is controversial. When Taranaki Regional Council chooses what to do about Yarrow Stadium, every one of Taranaki’s 118,000 people will be affected.

Unless the council picks the least expensive of its restoration options – a $6 million tidy-up that would leave lawn in place of the two earthquake-prone stands – all households and businesses will feel the impact of a rates rise, and other sports fear they’ll struggle to fund their own urgently needed sports facilities.

That said, the wider sports community agrees that having enjoyed Yarrow Stadium on Rugby Park for 82 years, Taranaki still needs at least one significant spectator arena.

They’re just worried TRC got carried away with a restoration plan that is too ambitious, that the $69 million extended form being proposed amounts to building a convention centre. 

Critics such as Sport Taranaki, basketball, hockey and others are asking why TRC hasn’t highlighted more straightforward repair options that could be done for half that price. They’re annoyed the council hasn’t consulted them properly about the use of Yarrow Stadium as a multi-sport centre.

TRC’s politicians did not respond to Live magazine’s requests for comment, except to say they were constrained by upcoming hearings to consider public submissions 
(of which there were 526). 

However, there is no shortage of documentation about why they decided on February 25 to go for a combination of options from those proposed by their consultants, Business and Economic Research Ltd (BERL).

Although eight choices are listed, in fact there are just three, and if you discard the extreme notions at either end (demolition or a roofed enclosure like Dunedin’s) there’s only one – with variations.

The council picked Option 2, the cheapest at $55 million, made up of $36 million to restore both stands, plus another $19 million for various additional upgrades. 

Implicit in its commentary is the desire to go for $69 million-worth of work, which would provide top-class facilities to cater for functions and ensure a strong commercial future for the stadium…and improve the likelihood of more All Blacks test matches.

The council has no existing loans and is backed by a special act of parliament (passed in 2003) that empowers it to borrow money “for the purposes of the development of a stadium at Rugby Park, New Plymouth” and to “levy a rate or charge…to recover the costs of the borrowing (including interest and principal).”

It says $55 million is as much as it should prudently borrow, but more could be raised from various other funding sources, including perhaps Shane Jones’ provincial growth fund.

A close read of the second of BERL’s two reports shows cheaper repair possibilities have been looked at. There are two “sub-options” that would cost between about 
$32 million (sub-option 2a) and $38 million (sub-option 2b). 

The lesser would repair the East Stand but demolish the West, losing 4900 seats and the TV commentary and other media rooms. For an extra $6 million,  sub-option 2b retains the West Stand, but without its roof.

Engineering details are not provided, but sources say while the East Stand must be gutted so it can be properly braced, the sub-options would return it to its current state. As well as seating, it contains the Taranaki Rugby Football Union’s offices, changing rooms, gym facilities, catering spaces and function areas like the recently improved Legends Lounge.

So, the rate-paying public might ask: if the stadium’s facilities were good enough for an All Blacks test in 2017, what justification is there to spend more than $36 million?

BERL implies that if we can afford it, the prizes for an enhanced rebuild are glittering, with All Blacks test matches the holy grail. A Yarrow Stadium game between the All Blacks and France in 2013 attracted 6500 visitors to Taranaki and injected $4.53 million into the economy. A test in Nelson last year generated spending of $9.9 million.

The bigger outlay in Option 4 ($69 million) would add more seating and improve entrance gates, a new building next door to Sport Taranaki (plans show it would contain a gym and changing rooms, but rumour has it the rugby union would move its HQ there), as well as expand all levels of the East Stand down to ground level.

That would create an additional hospitality lounge on level 3, expand and refurbish the Legends Lounge, and provide the stadium with additional food and beverage outlets and toilets.

While TRC’s consultants say Taranaki has no choice but to fix Yarrow Stadium, preferably to a much higher standard if we can afford it, New Zealand’s main sports coordinating body has serious doubts about the second part of that proposition.

Sport New Zealand says the council needs to “reconsider its currently preferred option and look to develop a more modest solution that would reduce the capital burden on the council (and) reduce ongoing operational costs.”

While it supports the council’s efforts to find a solution, going for a 25,000-seat capacity exceeded the need described by BERL, which said about 975,000 used the stadium over the last 15 years – equating to filling it only 2.5 times a  year. 

Taranaki Rugby as principal user occupied on average just 24-32 per cent of the proposed capacity of Option 2 for regular national provincial championship games. Ranfurly Shield matches used just 40-51 percent. 

Events requiring significantly more room could be catered for with temporary measures, something borne out in a recent Taranaki Daily News report. It said Nelson’s Trafalgar Park (one of the Mitre 10 Cup’s Tasman Mako’s two homes) has just 2000 covered seats, with everything else – including further seating, toilets, food vendors, and the sound system – brought in for game day.

In its submission, Sport NZ urged TRC to consider a smaller scale development with greater flexibility of spaces, an enhanced experience for both performers/players and visitors alike, and which would have the opportunity to generate a better return on investment as well as reduce operating and maintenance costs in the long term.

Sport NZ referred to a list of Yarrow Stadium restoration priorities TRC has prepared, detailing 11 “essential enhancements” costing $8.6m and another 
14 “high priority” ones worth $9.59m.

“A number of these would appear to be renewals of existing assets which should have been appropriately depreciated, in which case funding should already be available for these items, so it is not clear to us why they would be captured in this project.”

It also warned recent experience shows the actual cost of earthquake remediation climbs significantly as detailed design and construction costs are agreed.

Since the council said $55 million is its prudent loan limit, any cost overrun would put TRC at risk.

Sport NZ is worried about the impact the proposed Yarrow Stadium special levy will have on the community’s ability to respond to other sport and recreation needs.

Its 2014 national policy Better Value from NZ Sport Facilities, resulted in a Taranaki regional steering group to look at coordinating the province’s efforts to improve infrastructure. 

Led by Sport Taranaki, its members include (management) representatives from the three district councils, funders (TSB Community Trust, TET, NZ Community Trust) and Sport NZ. 

Its Taranaki Regional Sport and Recreation Facility Strategy, now adopted by the district councils, sets out how best to meet the province’s future needs and mentions several priority projects for the New Plymouth District (such as redeveloping TSB Stadium), which Sport NZ said would be negatively affected because people living in the north will pay a higher percentage than those in the south.

Sport Taranaki chair and New Plymouth District councillor Gordon Brown shares those concerns. He says people are “in danger of being directed by a process that was set up to ensure a particular outcome.

“Sorry – that’s not democracy. Everybody in Taranaki should be really concerned that this amount of money is going into one professional sport.”

He says Sport Taranaki wants rugby to have a great home and be able to attract big matches, but thinks the favoured options require too much money to cater for professional sport “in which most of the players who run onto that hallowed turf are not even from here”.

He says there will be half a dozen provincial matches, one or two Super games, and a test match once every three or more years “if we’re lucky”. Every three to five years the Phoenix will come to play a soccer match and there might be the occasional Warriors league game: “But basically we’re buying those events. 

“When NPDC took the park over from the rugby union, it was sold to the community as a multi-sport stadium, and the community bought into that. But it never happened.

“For instance, apart from a couple of one-dayers, cricket was unable to go there when the rebuilt ground was too small, and it turned out to be a sterile atmosphere compared to Pukekura Park anyway. The cycling track went, and then other sports found they weren’t catered for, and it was impossible to afford.

“Let’s face it, it’s a rugby stadium. That’s what it is and that’s what it’s remained. So when you’re looking at spending $55 million you’re looking at providing those facilities for professional rugby.”

He is concerned that when TRC said it consulted with all the stadium users, that meant rugby only: “Nobody else uses it. I’m not aware of any other local sporting organisations that use it regularly. One offs, yes, but not regular Taranaki sports bodies.”

He is particularly disappointed TRC declined to participate in the Sport Taranaki-led facility strategy group. The regional council didn’t see the strategy as part of its brief, apparently influenced by a belief its legislative authority confined it to looking at the stadium only, “and yet the biggest single issue we’re facing is where Yarrow Stadium fits into the strategy.

Brown was appalled at the timing of the submissions period, which closed the day after Easter, during a ten day period many Taranaki businesses shut their doors so staff could enjoy an extended break.

“If you wanted to design a submissions period where you didn’t get many responses that you didn’t want, that’s a good way to go about it.”

He worries about the big lounges proposed in the $69 million option to cater for functions, because that would be in direct opposition to private enterprise: “That’s not something councils should be doing.”

The proposal ignores significant changes in society the government is keen to address through its “well being” policy, which is a move away from organised spectator sport to individual pursuits where people just turn up and play.

He says Sport NZ is determined to remove barriers to participation faced by some sectors, such as ethnic minorities. 

“We only have to look at our own patch, Taranaki – it’s just not happening. We have to cater for them, and when you take $55 million out of a community you’re removing a huge amount of capital.

“When people are approached in future to fund other facilities they are going to say they’ve already paid for the stadium, twice. It’s not fair. It’s not equitable. We need to be catering for the local community close to where they live so they can have access to first-rate facilities. Our own people.”

In its submission to TRC, Sport Taranaki said it wants the council to go for a stadium that caters for the majority of its stadium-related events, which have between 5000 and 10,000 spectators.

It said TRC should consider stadium restoration within the context of the wider network of sport facilities and current needs, national declines in spectator and rugby participation trends, and moves towards modified sports and informal participation.

It had analysed current provision and future needs of 42 sports, and found over-provision in some districts and within certain codes, as well as gaps, particularly in New Plymouth where population growth and changes were affecting demand. 

It recommended TRC investigate its legislation to see if it can broaden its powers beyond Rugby Park, so rate takings could be invested in regional sport and recreation facilities. Such a model had recently been implemented by Northland Regional Council.

The submission said because of size, location, current use restrictions, Rugby Park (the site of Yarrow Stadium) is not an appropriate or preferred location for a multi-sport hub.

That last statement is at odds with New Plymouth District Council, which manages the stadium and in 2015 produced a detailed 45-page plan that included ways to open it up to other sports (ironically, the stadium was regarded as 75 percent earthquake compliant at that stage).

Recommendations in the 10-year plan (2015-2025) included developing hospitality space in one of the stands, but also building facilities for the other fields to overcome access problems when the East Stand was closed, artificial turf for the number two ground, upgrading the park entrances, a review of concessions to give access to those with less disposable income, and exploring ways to reduce venue hire costs.

With TRC footing the bill, the hospitality space (including the Legends Lounge – capacity of 300 seated and 650 standing) was rebuilt in the East Stand in time for the 2017 All Blacks test, but work overran the $2.6m budget, so few, if any, of the multi-sport initiatives (estimated cost about $4m) were addressed.

What, then, does the council think of TRC’s new proposal? It’s hard to say:  NPDC didn’t make a public submission, its councillors haven’t had a vote, and it hasn’t asked its North Taranaki ratepayers what they think. 

Mayor Neil Holdom: “Well, they’re the same people as are being consulted by TRC, so we don’t see any need for it.” He says the regional council has shown good leadership over what was “a headache of monumental proportions that nobody expected or wanted”.

His view is that walking away from the stadium was never an option, and he wanted to see a decision from TRC “which says we should fix the stadium and then put in place a bunch of enhancements to ensure it’s fit for purpose and future-proofed.”

Call it the “Adams effect”. The giant New Zealander with the big hair and surly oncourt presence can probably be credited with at least some of the extraordinary growth spurt experienced by basketball in recent times.

Steven Adams has had his own segment of TV One’s sports news for much of the second half of this decade. His antics in the US National Basketball Association league have probably had more coverage than any single Kiwi athlete this century. Outside rugby, that is. 

Earlier this year, the NZ Secondary School Sports Council reported basketball has overtaken rugby as the second-highest participation secondary school sport in New Zealand behind netball. 

Its 2018 census showed 26,481 secondary school students played for a basketball team at school, an increase of three per cent from 2017. 

Basketball NZ claims its sport will be the biggest in schools by next year. 

The other big mover is volleyball, now sitting at fifth, and badminton has doubled since the turn of the century.

While netball stays steady, two of our biggest sports – rugby and cricket – are in decline. Last year, rugby’s national figures dropped six per cent from 2017, with 25,317 secondary school students playing the sport.

The above pattern is relevant to the stadium debate, because while rugby is the main focus of efforts to save the place, sports like basketball are struggling to find space to play. 

Three of the biggest growth pastimes listed above need indoor courts, which in New Plymouth are overdue major renewal and expansion. Most pressure is on TSB Stadium, which has three full-sized sports courts, and can be converted for corporate events, shows, concerts, exhibitions, trade shows, conventions and community occasions.

In recent long-term plans, owner New Plymouth District Council acknowledged the stadium needs about $30 million spent on it to accommodate more, but it hasn’t got the funding. That’s a sore point.  

New Plymouth Basketball Association’s David Cooper explains: “We have 111 junior teams competing in competitions run for juniors – more than 1100 kids playing on Monday and Tuesday nights. To be able to fit all these teams in, we have to run various versions of reduced-time games.

“In our senior competition, we have 52 teams competing, over 500 people playing, and to accommodate them we have to use the gym at Francis Douglas Memorial College as well as the TSB stadium on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The last games often finish after 10.30pm.”

On Tuesday nights, there’s a wheelchair game run with the help of Sport Taranaki. The association also runs a competition for years 9 to 13. With more than 600 kids participating in 68 teams last year, it had to be staged in school gyms on Friday because other sports were using TSB stadium. 

Cooper is hardly alone with his concerns.  His organisation is one of 16 that banded together to make their voices heard in response to the TRC’s Yarrow Stadium consultation process.

The Taranaki Sports Codes Facility Collective includes Taranaki Hockey, Taranaki Synthetic Turf Trust, Taranaki Cricket, Netball Taranaki, Volleyball Taranaki, Central Football, New Plymouth Basketball Association, Taranaki Equestrian Network, Taranaki Tennis, Skate Sport Taranaki, Taranaki Badminton, Parafed Taranaki, New Plymouth Mountain Bikers, The Mountainairs, Taranaki Secondary School Sports Association, and Gymnastica Gym Club. 

Cooper says the first and only consultation basketball had with TRC was at a meeting Sports Taranaki organised with the council’s director of corporate services, Mike Nield. 

“When questioned about how the (extra) $19 million in upgrades had been decided on, the meeting was informed TRC had consultation workshops with the current users of Yarrow Stadium to understand what other priorities they had that could be addressed in the rebuild.

“That data contributed to a prioritised list of enhancements. TRC had not contacted any other sports group outside the current users to attend those workshop meetings.”

Asked if there’s a better option than the ones TRC is touting, Cooper said: “Whether the area under the main stand could be altered to fit a number of courts during the repairs to the East Stand would require an engineer to look into. That would give sports like volleyball, netball, badminton and basketball other options, and provide an indoor training area for rugby. At the moment all these sports compete for time at the TSB Stadium.”

How does rugby fare under all this scrutiny? Given it’s the only New Zealand sport that consistently ranks top in the world, its case remains strong. 

In Taranaki, rugby has a century-long history of strong interest and participation, and continues to dominate the hearts and minds of our local body politicians. 

Registered participants in rugby account for more than five per cent of the total Taranaki population, Venture Taranaki reported in a 2016 analysis.

According to BERL, interest in playing rugby remains high in Taranaki. In the country’s 14 NPC provinces, we had the highest participation as a percentage of population in each of the last four years 2014 to 2017.

The numbers for women and girls are high in Taranaki, too, with 2016 participation being 30 percent of the number of boys and men, compared with the national figure of 16 percent. That increased to 38 percent in 2017, with the national figure still only 18 percent.

Yarrow Stadium attendance for provincial pool matches averaged between 6000 and 8000, and getting as high as 11,000, with more than 20,000 watching the successful NPC final in 2014.

The Taranaki Rugby Football Union submission to TRC was concise, supporting Option 2, with an upgrade to Option 4 if additional funding can be found.

Chairman Lindsay Thompson says the union wants the stadium back up to full operational standard by 2021, and has plans to attract spectators back for matches in the meantime. 

Temporary seating for 1800 will be installed in front of the East Stand for this winter. 

If restoration is approved, the West Stand – an easier fix – will be sorted first, meaning the stadium would be back to workable capacity for next year’s season, during which the much more extensive work needed on East Stand would be done. 

The TRC heard submissions on the Draft Annual Plan, including the stadium options, during 13/14 May, with the plan due to be adopted at the council’s ordinary meeting on  Tue 21 May.

As LIVE was due to go to print, the TRC published a response to the various criticisms of the stadium proposal.

Readers will find this information here. 

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