Brian Ashby: Christchurch- the Sleepy Sporting Backwater

Author
Brian Ashby,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Wednesday, 12 April 2017, 1:29PM
The old Lancaster Park was far from perfect, writes Brian Ashby (Photo / Martin Hunter)
The old Lancaster Park was far from perfect, writes Brian Ashby (Photo / Martin Hunter)

I'm finding it hard to believe that I'm actually about to type these words, but here goes: "Christchurch sports fans are too polite!".

The thing is, six years on from the February quakes that changed everything in the city and in our lives, fans are still waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

The old Lancaster Park was far from perfect - too many compromises had made sure of that, but it least it was an almost proper venue befitting New Zealand's second largest city. The current "temporary" AMI Stadium in Addington has done it's dash. Gerry Brownlee's meccano set stadium was a wonderful 100 day triumph that gave the city a morale boost it needed when it was at its most broken. But it was always a temporary solution and fans are getting over almost sitting on each others knees. Access in and around the venue is also far from ideal with the roading system in the area simply not designed to cater for high volumes of punters.

The Lions tour. Ah the Lions Tour. No tests for Christchurch, purely and simply because we don't have an adequate venue. The city loses. Over the last 18 months we've enjoyed massive concerts from Bruce Springsteen and the Foo Fighters, but those concerts have essentially been sympathy votes from the artists who have gone out of their ways to help the city. The sympathy vote won't last, not now that this much time has passed. New Zealand's second biggest city will continue to miss out.

Sport has suffered enormously since the earthquakes. QE2 previously housed and catered for 27 different sports. Schools now travel to Ashburton and Timaru for track and field meets, simply because there is no facility in Christchurch. Yes that will all begin to change now that starts are being made on Nga Puna Wai and the Metro Sports Hub. But by the time those facilities builds have been completed, many sports will have been without proper facilities for the best part of a decade. The impact that- that has had on aspiring sports people in the province has been enormous. Careers have died through lack of opportunity.

It's not all doom and gloom for the Garden City. The Arts and Performing Arts have done well out the back end of the quakes. It's amazing how quickly money has been found to make things happen. The Isaac Theatre Royal is something special, the Art Gallery is up and running, the Court Theatre quickly re-homed itself, The Arts Centre is being beautifully restored and the Christchurch Town Hall is undergoing a massive fix-up. The evidence is irrefutable. Our Councillors love the arts, but are a bit "meh" when it comes to sport.

Costs of the new Central Library are blowing out and approaching $100m. I've missed something here but quite why the need for an elaborate and massive library in the digital age is beyond me. Can't help thinking that it'll be obsolete in a little over a decade.

The elephant in the room for the City Council is replacing Lancaster Park. Finally we have confirmation that it is going to be demolished. Progress. The new proposed central city stadium was originally meant to be completed now in time for the Lions Tour. The Council bumped it back to 2021. The Crown has purchased most of the land required, so what's the hold up ?

Research First surveyed nearly 800 Cantabrians last year with 94% saying "get on with it- the city needs a proper stadium". But the problem is of course the 6%. The 6%, as always, the squeaky wheel, speaks loudest. The blank canvas that is Christchurch has been hindered by pandering to the minority right throughout the rebuild. It becomes near impossible to get anything done, and I despair for the visionaries who see a city of future being held back by those living in the past. It's bizarre that sports people and sports fans are left begging for the things they had before the earthquakes. No-one else has had to.

The Council committed to just over half the cost of the new Stadium - $253m. Lancaster Park, like all the city assets, was hopelessly under insured at $143m. Councillors and staff responsible should be hunted out and put in stocks in Hagley Park. So with a fully enclosed stadium costed at $506m (and no doubt climbing), there is clearly a shortfall. The Research First data again showed that the vast majority (no doubt somewhat begrudgingly) accepted that there would need to be a rates increase to help with build. Central Government needs to dig a little deeper. They happily helped Auckland redevelop Eden Park when the rest of the country was happy to see a waterfront stadium in our biggest city. Funny lot those Aucklanders, but now the waterfront scenario is back on the table. Will central government help out again ?

A lot of the rugby haters point the finger at the game and say: "You guys pay for it". Remember that rugby won't be the only users, and that like with the redevelopment of Lancaster Park, they will front. One of the saddest things for rugby fans was after so much anticipation and excitement, Christchurch lost it's games for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The (then) IRB featured Christchurch prominently in it's pre-tournament promotional activity, with Richie McCaw and Dan Carter clear poster boys. They skited post tournament of their financial success, having sucked a 90 million pound profit from it. Wouldn't it be good to see some of that put back into one of rugby's historically important cities ? $20m would be nice please. Throw some money back into New Zealand.

With the old Lancaster Park site being de-commissioned, sell it for commercial use and put that money into the new development. Yes there will be hoops to jump through to make that happen, but it's all doable.

All of New Zealand is jealous of Forsyth Barr in Dunedin. Players love it. Fans love it. Despite many naysayers initially, and a slightly flawed initial financial model, Dunedin now loves it.  They have a great asset. Christchurch can't compromise. A fully enclosed stadium is now the minimum standard. Building anything less means that it hasn't been future proofed. The previous Lancaster Park redevelopments were laughably bad. Compromises were made to pander to those who had little interest in ever setting foot in the venue. As a result, a largely uncovered stadium that was too small for cricket and too large for the football codes became bereft of atmosphere. It was a bad fan experience, and people stayed away.

So lets get on with it. Get brave. A new central stadium adjacent to public transport and hospitality venues will get the city pumping. At last. Rugby administrators are clearly afraid to put their heads above the parapets. They shouldn't be. They have the data to back them up. So sports fans and rate payers need to stop being polite and a little apologetic- turn the heat up on your elected representatives.

Brian Ashby is a commentator and journalist for Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport.

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