Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Auckland stadiums strategy: Arena masterplan on ice

It was proposed to revamp the oval at Western Springs with the venue to be used for test cricket from 2021 onwards. Photo / Artist's impression
It was proposed to revamp the oval at Western Springs with the venue to be used for test cricket from 2021 onwards. Photo / Artist's impression

The Auckland stadiums strategy is up in the air, with the Auckland Council putting a freeze on any further development.

The ambitious plan to move speedway from Western Springs, then shift Auckland Cricket from Eden Park to the lakeside venue, is at the crossroads.

Regional Facilities Auckland, the council-controlled organisation which has driven the controversial stadiums strategy since 2012, received a severe setback last week.

Their timetable had speedway exiting Western Springs at the end of next season (March 2019), with the redeveloped oval to be used for test cricket from 2021 onwards. But that schedule may have to be torn up.

The Herald on Sunday can exclusively reveal that Auckland Council has instructed the RFA to shelve any development plans, and there is doubt over when they can start the process again.

The council has instructed the RFA that there are to be "no significant changes to stadia until the future of Eden Park and a national stadium proposal is clearer".

In other developments;

●Springs Speedway has vowed to fight to stay at Western Springs beyond the current lease, and will ask the council to meditate in negotiations for a new deal with the RFA.

●Auckland Cricket have no desire to leave their base at Eden Park, and are believed to be uncomfortable about the prospect of speedway being forced out of their spiritual home.

●The estimated cost of the strategy has topped $100 million, with at least $30m needed to redevelop Waikaraka Park into a new motorsport precinct. An earlier RFA strategy put the costs at $30m.

This week's move by the council is a significant shift. Over the last five years they have been broadly supportive of the RFA's strategies, recognising the need to consolidate Auckland's stadium offerings, but this is a change in direction.

"This is quite a watershed moment," said councillor John Watson. "We hope going forward that whatever solution is put forward the sport's needs will be taken into account, rather than a grandiose, illogical strategy that has been very unpopular.

"Up until now no one had really known what the RFA may or may not have been doing," added Watson. "Even in reporting back, financial breakdowns of proposals, they have been largely lacking. This is a watershed in terms of the council looking to take a more directive approach, given the money involved and the feedback from the sporting codes. In the past, no matter what was said, the RFA would continue on their merry way. This is a change in direction."

Mayor Phil Goff is expected to send a letter of expectation to the RFA this week, which will reflect the key strategic priorities agreed upon by the council. That document, released last week, is unequivocal.

"Given the constrained funding environment, and in particular limited capital finding for redevelopment of assets, RFA should focus on consolidating its operations, necessary renewals, and ensuring it continues to make the most from commercial operations," the letter reads.

"The key considerations at present are the uncertainty over the future status of Eden Park and potential prospects for a national stadium in Auckland. The nature and timing of this work has yet to be determined. Given this, RFA should continue investigations towards an appropriate development plan, but not make moves towards implementing elements of a regional stadium strategy."

The Herald on Sunday revealed in February that the estimated cost of the Western Springs' redevelopment into a cricket oval and AFL venue was at least $70m. This was more than five times higher than the original costing presented by the RFA in 2014 for a cricket facility, and caused Goff to say such an idea was "not at the top of my priorities, and funding at the level speculated is not available at present".

Speedway has been living on borrowed time since 2012, when the RFA's strategic plan was first introduced. Back then the plan was to shift speedway to Mt Smart, before the Warriors successfully fought to stay at their long-term home. Colin Dale Park in Manukau was the next option — which has since been discarded — before the RFA settled on Waikaraka Park as their preferred option.

"Councillors have voted for a stay of execution which is a positive move," said Springs Speedway chief executive Greg Mosen. "We want to stay here and that's our only option. Our plan to achieve that was to take the RFA to task ... it would appear that the council have helped us do that somewhat. The council have said to RFA 'stop what you are doing, there is nothing more to be done until we find a solution to the Eden Park scenario'. Who knows how long that will be and the final consultation around the National stadium?

"We are going to propose to the council that they can meditate a negotiation with the RFA and ourselves, to extend our term here."

Mosen claims the RFA's strategy is now "in tatters" and is confident of community and public support.

"It's out there all the time," said Mosen, "Even those people that don't go to speedway, they recognise we have been here for almost 90 years. We are a long-standing sporting code, compliant and getting on well with our stakeholders. The RFA has to respect that."

Auckland Cricket has similar views about a move.

"Eden Park is our home, always has been and will remain so for the foreseeable future," said CEO Iain Laxon. "Any potential move would have to stack up and need to be much better than what we currently have but at the moment there is no desire for a move."

However RFA chief executive Chris Brooks is adamant the Western Springs redevelopment will proceed as planned.

"The RFA board have made a decision that's Speedway lease will come to an end and we have been working with them on Waikaraka Park ... we maintain the view that Waikaraka Park is the best place for the future of speedway, to give them an opportunity to grow their sport," said Brooks. "The thinking behind the strategy hasn't changed, just the timing, due to funding constraints."

- Herald on Sunday

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