Editorial: Who will own up to Rugby Park?

Last updated 05:00 10/03/2014

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OPINION: In sporting terms, Invercargill's Rugby Park is hallowed ground. In financial terms it is not so much sanctified as dangerously radioactive.

Once again, the Geiger counters of city ratepayers are buzzing loud warnings at the prospect of the facility becoming the property, and financial burden, of the Invercargill City Council.

That remains the looming likelihood, far more so than the technically-possible scenario of one of the park creditors - the Community Trust of Southland - becoming an appalled owner. The community trust is being pressured to recast a $750,000 loan made in 2008 as, in hindsight, just a grant, in spite of the clear understanding and contractual obligations entered into at the time.

Since the loan is secured against the stadium building, the community trust could now wind up with one doer-upper stadium at its disposal.

But that is the sort of possibility that exists only in a world without politics or torch-wielding mobs.

No, what is really going on would appear to be a bit of pressure on the community trust to magic some of the financial ugliness off the books before the city council plods to a reluctant long-term rescue.

In which case, the council surely knows it will face more than a few highly unhappy ratepayers. In 2012, the last time it asked its people what they thought about the idea of taking over, or at least upping support for, Rugby Park, three-quarters of the submissions were to the effect of "oh hell no".

And the remaining quarter were not all thumbs-up either.

One-third of those did not want ownership but thought it enough to provide up to $200,000 a year.

Something far more significant than yet another cash injection is required.

Rugby Park has variously received a great many of those, reaching into the millions, typically delivered with stern warnings about that being enough of that. The result has just been to delay the next handout whine.

Throughout New Zealand, where there is a stadium there is simultaneously a cauldron of sporting/cultural excitement and a financial loss-making hole, typically owned by local government. Rugby Park, however, is owned by a Southland Outdoor Stadium Trust, an outfit that Rugby Southland graced with the responsibilities of ownership while retaining, for itself, the management of the facility.

The park has persisted in being sadly short of the sort of ancillary usage (read: anything unfootyish) that might improve its financial bottom lines.

A secret meeting with the city council and community funders has been held, and we understand the favoured option still includes the community trust backing down on the debt and the council becoming the not-so-proud parent.

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Rugby Park won't be abandoned. It is too culturally important. It just is.

But not all city ratepayers will be convinced that a different management structure could not have done - or yet do - significantly better.

For that matter, let's not forget whose park it really is.

They aren't the Invercargill Stags. The stadium trust puts the crowd makeup at 45 per cent from Invercargill, 40 per cent from wider Southland and 15 per cent from other areas.

Gore District Mayor Tracy Hicks has acknowledged the park to be "definitely a regional facility".

Well, then . . .

- The Southland Times

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