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Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa (but Helen's not his name)
Brian Rudman
Wednesday December 13, 2006

Isn't it about time Prime Minister Helen Clark sat Eden Park development chairman Rob Fisher down on her knee and broke the news to him that Santa doesn't exist? That he's not going to wake up on Christmas morning to find a $225 million government cheque under his pillow to cover the funding shortfall for the park's planned makeover?

Everyone else seems to have guessed as much, which is no surprise given the hints of recrimination Sport Minister Trevor Mallard spread about while lobbying for his ill-fated waterfront option. So why keep stringing the park trustees along?

Until the Government makes its funding intentions clear, the Auckland City resource consent hearing on whether to grant permission for a $385 million upgrade of the park has become something of a pantomime.

All the actors are playing to a script which most of us suspect has the wrong ending.

For the sake of the commissioners, the Rugby Union, the trustees and the neighbours, shouldn't everyone involved in the hearings at least be given the courtesy of addressing the right question?

Why should they agonise for weeks over such details as the extent of the shadow cast by a $385 million stadium at the equinox when there's never going to be the funds for anything but the earlier $160 million, temporary solution? How cruel and counterproductive and time-wasting is that?

Two weeks ago, the Cabinet conceded defeat over the waterfront option and expressed a preference for a redeveloped Eden Park. But it asked for more work to be done on design, governance and funding before making a final choice.

An experts report was to have been considered at this week's Cabinet meeting, but this plan has been put off until the New Year.

Regardless, the Eden Park trustees, to meet development deadlines, have had to soldier on seeking consent for their gold-plated option. It's one that just about everyone, apart from the trustees, sees as a sub-optimal solution that will create a stadium which, because of its location in suburbia, will always be hog-tied by the need not to upset the neighbours, including Helen Clark, the local MP.

As Mr Mallard wrote in his report to the Cabinet on November 27, "Eden Park will be a constrained and limited-use facility going forward which will present risk around its economic viability and issues as to which body will be responsible for the through cost of the venue".

Despite this lack of enthusiasm for Eden Park as off-course substitute, the Government decided to gamble on a two-horse race, then lost.

In punting on its option winning, the Government also gambled away the luxury of time to consider alternatives. As a result, last-minute calls to consider Mt Smart and Carlaw Park, among others, are being treated as little more than irritants by already scratchy bureaucrats and ministers.

I've always favoured Mt Smart, already publicly owned, situated in centrally located wastelands, far from residential neighbours but close to rail and road links. And if there had been more time Carlaw Park, near the CBD, seemed also worth a look. But all a wounded Government wants to do is default to safety mode and lock into Eden Park - with North Harbour Stadium as a possible "reserve option".

Just how little money the Government will volunteer to the Eden Park upgrade is a mystery. But Mr Mallard has made it clear that it was dissatisfaction with the cost blowouts surrounding the Eden Park bid that encouraged the Cabinet to look elsewhere in the first place.

So all things considered, including the site's limitations as a stadium venue and Government shell-shockedness, my guess is the Government will not fork out enough to support anything like the de luxe model.

Particularly as only Auckland City, among the eight Auckland local authorities, has offered any financial help.

Towards the end of the short battle to try to win the hearts and minds of Aucklanders, the Government hinted that it saw the waterfront stadium - but not Eden Park - as Auckland's Te Papa and was offering to pour Government funds into an Auckland edifice to try to balance the ledger vis--vis Wellington.

We chose the second option. Now we're waiting to take our punishment and hear what the second prize is worth. To delay the announcement until after the resource consent hearings for the gold-plated Eden Park option is over is not going to win any friends.