Tuesday, 20 Apr 2021

Andrew Barnes: Auckland being short-changed by Eden Park concert agreement

Opinion:

On the face of it, the news of Six60’s history-making Eden Park concert is good – a breakthrough of the longstanding resistance of a small group of neighbours to music events at the stadium, and (many probably assumed) more revenue for a hard-hit Auckland arts and culture scene.

That’s not the case. The facts remain that Auckland has a stadium problem and an arts-and-culture funding problem, and Eden Park has a concert-hosting problem. Because the question of what to do with Auckland’s stadiums is still nowhere near resolution, despite the options we presented to Auckland Council when I was chair of RFA*, the economics around what these assets are doing for Aucklanders are becoming ever more precarious.

First, Eden Park has been primarily a rugby and cricket ground, and it is Auckland Rugby and Auckland Cricket which benefit from revenue to the Eden Park Trust Board. Just two years ago, Auckland Council approved $53.5 million in loans to cover the stadium’s debt and a $9.8 million grant for major essential maintenance over the next three years.

Ratepayers, from whom this money comes, might be forgiven for wanting a smarter long-term plan than large bailouts, and concerts would seem to be part of that – but whatever profit is generated from Six60 or any other concert doesn’t go to any musical or cultural purpose but back to Eden Park Trust Board.

This is a significant change in the financial model for arts funding in the city. Each concert generates between $500,000 and $1 million of surplus income, which (when concerts were held at Mt Smart and Western Springs) traditionally went into the RFA budget and was used to support cultural events and assets such as our museums, the Auckland Art Gallery and Auckland Zoo.

Conversely, the concert decision has taken between $2 million and $4 million out of the council budget and handed the proceeds to Eden Park without attracting new revenue or reducing costs one jot.

I have always supported concerts at Eden Park in principle, but only if profits were appropriately distributed. Arrangements could only have been different had Auckland Council negotiated it when the bailout was given in 2019 – at which time the right decision would have been to wind down Mt Smart and take control of Eden Park.

As we know, that didn’t happen. Now Auckland is left with a venue that is costing money, and it has lost the concert revenue that it formerly used to support cultural activity – unless council negotiated compensation from Eden Park Trust Board before issuing the concert permits and just hasn’t told us. If it did not, it is another example of the lack of joined-up thinking we see throughout council.

Second, the city can’t afford to run all of its current stadiums. There is no point having the Warriors at Mt Smart and the Blues at Eden Park, which for all its faults is a more modern venue that has enjoyed upgrades. Auckland needs a plan now as to what will happen to Mt Smart, which requires a $300 million refurbishment by 2028 if it is to keep functioning as a stadium. Alternatively, Auckland Council should make a deal with the iwi which owns the Mt Smart stadium land, set it up for development, and use the money to fund appropriate alternative infrastructure. Invested well, those funds will support arts and culture across Auckland in perpetuity, and we will have modern, fit-for-purpose venues for music and sports. The longer this particular can is kicked down the road, the more expensive the outcome will be for ratepayers.

Third, where does Eden Park’s new status as a concert venue leave cricket, given that the concert and cricket seasons clash? Easy. We can build an inexpensive, Hamilton-style cricket venue right down the road at Western Springs. This provides flexibility – when schedules allow, cricket can still be played at Eden Park, but for the multi-day event that a single concert can be, with set-up, packing down and rehearsal, cricket fans don’t have to miss out, and Auckland doesn’t risk losing events to other cities. In addition we can attract test cricket back to Auckland and give Aucklanders the chance to see our world-beating test cricketers in action.

Again, returning to the RFA strategy, flexibility was always at the heart of the vision for Auckland’s events. If we don’t make key decisions now, we will have a deteriorating Mt Smart and a vibrant Eden Park concert scene whose revenues won’t go to the right places.

Why would we have music events where the profits are not used to support music? Any plan for stadiums which does not help reverse cuts to Auckland’s arts and culture budget is a failure – and without arts investment it will be that much harder for local acts like Six60 to emerge at all.

Finally, I have yet to see a long-term strategy for Mt Smart from Auckland Unlimited. I do not know what happened to the option paper we prepared at RFA for the future of arts and culture across Auckland. With no clear articulation of the stadium strategy, is Auckland Unlimited CEO Nick Hill supporting an increase of a commensurate amount (to what used to come from Mt Smart) into his organisation’s budget to self-fund cultural and community events? If not, they’ve given it away, and it’s likely the city has lost this dedicated revenue for good. It should be noted the CCO review paper categorised estimated increases in revenue as “cost savings” to justify the CCO restructure, though the impact in real terms was largely insignificant.

*RFA (Regional Facilities Auckland) was disestablished along with ATEED and replaced by a new Council Controlled Organisation, Auckland Unlimited.

– Andrew Barnes is the former chair of Regional Facilities Auckland. In the private sector, he made headlines around the world by introducing the four-day week at his company Perpetual Guardian.

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