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Mallard's folly will morph into albatross of debt
Brian Rudman
Monday November 20, 2006

Even Sport Minister Trevor Mallard would have to admit his charm offensive to persuade Auckland to accept his Trojan horse of a stadium had a bad first week.

Claiming a monopoly on vision was not a smart move, as he later felt the need to confess. Nor was his fudging of the financials.

By week's end, he was no closer to persuading the official gate-keepers or most Aucklanders that his waterfront site was either desirable or available.

The biggest blow came at Ports of Auckland's Christmas function on Thursday night, when managing director Geoff Vazey told 500-odd guests that the port company would not surrender land for a stadium until suitable replacement space was provided. He said he did not see that being possible in time to have a stadium built by 2011.

Mr Vazey has said this before but repeating it publicly a week into Mr Mallard's softening-up process showed the lack of headway he'd achieved.

Across at the Auckland City Council, the council's paid urban design champion, Ludo Campbell-Reid, has finally joined forces with senior members of the council's consultative urban design panel to oppose Mr Mallard's preferred site straddling Marsden and Cook wharves.

Mr Campbell-Reid told councillors on Friday he would support a site further east on Bledisloe Wharf and the politicians seem to be leaning towards this option.

Unfortunately for Mr Mallard, he's already conceded this Bledisloe site is too disruptive to port activity, which is why he discarded it in favour of the other option.

So far the tussle has tended to focus on where a stadium should go. Just as important, and so far neglected, is the question of how much and who is going to pay.

Mr Mallard is now in Canada. If he is in Quebec, he should check out the history of the 1976 summer Olympics stadium there. After 30 years, Quebec residents made their final mortgage payment earlier this year on what is nicknamed the Big Owe. It has cost nearly $2 billion and loses millions of dollars a year.

Of course, dubbing Mallard's folly the national stadium has lulled Aucklanders into thinking the Government is going to pay.

After all, that's what happens when anything gets labelled national and lives in Wellington. Te Papa cost taxpayers more than $300 million to build and annual multimillion-dollar handouts to keep afloat. National orchestra, ballet, library, the list goes on. Base it in Wellington and Government picks up the tab.

But put the label "national" on an Auckland institution and the rules change. The Maritime Museum is a good example. Flash name but no Government money. Now comes the national, in name but not money, stadium.

Not only do we have no clear idea of how much it is going to cost, we have no clear idea how much debt Auckland is going to be saddled with.

First, the cost. Mr Mallard's initial cost estimate was $497 million, which he compared favourably with Eden Park's latest $385 million concept. But within a week, his architects were talking sub-$600 million and Mr Mallard was telling National MPs costs wouldn't blow out beyond $650 million. Others are talking much higher figures. And until working drawings are done in a year or more, no one can be sure.

But even Mr Mallard's $650 million does not include $50 million Auckland city bureaucrats are offering for associated landscaping, nor does it include any compensation for lost business and recompense for land taken from the port company. How many tens of millions that involves is anyone's guess.

Yet the only funding proposal that the Government has put up is linked to the $497 million figure. Mr Mallard has said that after the $200 million in various sponsorship and lottery grants are accounted for, the Government will pay half the difference. The other half will come from a regional airport levy and visitor bed taxes.

The minister has ruled out on-going Government funding, claiming it will be able to fund itself if launched on a debt-free basis.

My overriding concern is saving the waterfront site for a more people-friendly development which is sympathetic to its site.

But every Aucklander, and New Zealand taxpayer, should be just as alarmed at the lack of financial details.

If ever a Trojan horse had the ability to metamorphose into an albatross around our necks, this stadium could be the one.