07/07/2011 - 00:00

Barnett’s bold gamble on stadium

07/07/2011 - 00:00


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Colin Barnett has taken a bit of a gamble in naming Burswood as the site for the new 60,000-seat stadium.

THE state government’s decision to opt for Burswood as the site for the new 60,000-seat sports stadium is its boldest, and potentially most costly, decision to date.

Colin Barnett and his ministers have clearly been swayed by the attraction of a new sporting and tourist-oriented development on the banks of the Swan River to smarten up the airport gateway to the CBD.

Those attractions were spelled out in the Langoulant taskforce four years ago, which ranked the Burswood site as the third best option behind Subiaco and the vacant site adjacent to the old East Perth power station.

But the taskforce drew attention to several limitations associated with Burswood that would add to its initial cost. There was also a warning that a worst-case scenario could lead to ongoing costs to taxpayers.

The cabinet decision represents a spectacular comeback for Burswood, a late starter in the race for the stadium site, which is expected to provide a focal point for major sporting events for at least the next 50 years.

That the Langoulant taskforce believed Burswood has significant potential is undeniable. It said the site, along with the power station option “ ... provide an outstanding opportunity for the development of a landmark stadium development which has the potential to greatly enhance the national and international reputation of the city of Perth”.

And again: “Burswood is the only site which offers the opportunity to develop a much more expansive sports and events precinct (similar to Melbourne’s and Sydney’s Olympic Parks), which would enable Perth to more competitively bid for major multi-sport events.”

Despite the exhaustive study of the alternative sites by the taskforce, the premier’s determination for an east-of-the-river location emerged last year when he expressed a leaning for the redevelopment of the Belmont Park racecourse. This would have enabled the construction of a new track, possibly south of Perth.

But it seemed Mr Barnett had failed to consult racing officials, who almost immediately rebuffed his proposal by announcing a massive redevelopment plan for Belmont, in association with foreign interests.

A clear sign that Burswood was back in the race occurred at the recent WA Citizen of the Year Awards, held at Burswood. Sydney-based James Packer, who has a controlling interest in the casino and entertainment complex, not only just happened to be in Perth, he also arrived at the function with Mr Barnett.

But the premier denied any favouritism for Mr Packer, adding that he would not be asking for any injection of Packer money, even though his companies stand to reap the benefit from the extra thousands who would be attracted to the site for major sporting events.

That Mr Barnett wants to avoid any suggestion of close arrangements between government and the private sector, given the experiences of the 1980s, is understandable. But the site also carries risks of considerable cost overruns.

The Langoulant report noted that, between 1946 and 1970, it “was used as Perth’s main refuse tip for domestic waste, industrial waste (including asbestos) and general builders’ waste and landfill”.

Referring to tests for the foundations of roadworks in the area, the report says: “The result of these investigations and the former use of the site indicate that the site presents a number of risks in terms of potential contamination and poor ground conditions resulting in potential severe settlement and ground heave issues.” And: “The site is also prone to flooding, and has a high watertable, being reclaimed swamp land. The unstable and potentially toxic nature of the landfill raises concerns for the viability of this site, due to the likely costs involved in remedial works required.”

The taskforce estimated the cost of the project, at 2008 prices, to be $1.15 billion. The premier has ruled out underground car parking, at an estimated saving of $200 million. But in assessing the cost of the stadium at $700 million, he is also providing a further $300 million for transport infrastructure – road, rail and a footbridge across the river into East Perth.

The fact that the stadium won’t be ready for seven years has raised eyebrows. The government is wise to stagger the timetables for major capital works projects. But there’s also the issue of preparing the Burswood site for the construction phase. The taskforce reckons that, because of its location, preparation and remedial works would mean that completion would be 18 months longer than for the other favoured locations.

But Mr Barnett has much more than a sports stadium in mind. His vision also includes riverside developments similar to Southbank in Brisbane, which attracts thousands of people on weekends for picnics, to swim in specially built ‘beaches’, or simply to relax and enjoy myriad restaurants and cafes. At this stage his concept is being referred to as ‘Eastbank’.

The taskforce also included provision for a 35,000-seat rectangular stadium, which could be a possibility at a later stage.

Mr Packer pulled out some heavy hitters four years ago in his initial campaign to have the new development located adjacent to his own entertainment complex, which now boasts Australia’s biggest casino.

They included Ron Walker, who chaired Melbourne’s 2006 Commonwealth Games Corporation, who said: “ ... James Packer’s proposal to collocate Perth’s major venues makes sense for Western Australia. Not only will it enhance the state’s ability to attract international and national events, it will also enable Perth to create an identifiable sports and entertainment precinct as a focal, and in time even iconic, point for the community.”

Mr Barnett and his colleagues have had a field day slamming the previous Labor government over cost overruns for the Perth Arena project on Wellington Street, which is increasingly taking on the appearance of a Lego creation as it edges towards completion.

This time the boot will be on the other foot as his government commits to a project for which the figure $700 million now has great significance. That’s with little apparent knowledge of the earthworks required, let alone the design of the stadium. It’s a clear act of faith.

Then there’s his assurance that thousands of seats for AFL matches will be set aside for the general public, compared with the virtual closed-shop arrangements for Eagles and Dockers members that prevail at present.

And there is also the issue of who will manage the new venue. The WA Football Commission runs the show at the moment, but the taskforce recommended the new venue be controlled by a government-appointed trust, whose members “should be independent of key venue tenants/hirers”.

All these are issues for the next term of government. In the meantime, Mr Barnett is hoping boldness will prove to be his friend.



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