Don’t hold your breath for a brand-spanking-new city stadium, with Chief Minister Andrew Barr explaining the project was becoming increasingly challenging the more it was looked at.
Mr Barr has long signalled a new stadium was far from the top of the government’s infrastructure priority list, with the City Cultural Precinct, including a new Canberra Theatre Centre and a new convention centre, in the lead.
The Chief Minister questioned in budget estimates this week whether a stadium was the best use of city land given it was used so infrequently.
“One of the strengths of the theatre is it’s used over hundreds of nights of the year,” Mr Barr said on Tuesday (30 August).
“One of the weaknesses of a stadium in the context of only two current football users is that it would only be used 20 to 30 times a year. There’s no other content.
“You end up with a dead space for 340 days of the year.”
He said this complicated the central argument for the stadium – that it should be in the city for the economic benefits it would bring to surrounding businesses.
Mr Barr was questioned on Wednesday (31 August) about whether he’d considered the possibility of the stadium being used for major live music acts as well as sports.
He said that had been considered, but opportunities were limited and there was not much promoter interest in Canberra. Furthermore, Mr Barr said major stadium tours were quickly becoming a thing of the past as the live music scene shifted to smaller venues.
Mr Barr first floated the civic stadium proposal as sports minister in 2009.
This week, the Chief Minister conceded the Civic pool site was extremely complicated but would not entirely rule it out.
“There are plenty of people who rightly have a view that [because building a city stadium] has been done in other cities, therefore it should be done in Canberra,” he told the hearing.
“I accepted that and have explored it extensively, but I’ve reluctantly reached the conclusion that it is very, very challenging on the Civic pool site without undertaking additional expenditure to make the block big enough.
“I’ve got to make a judgement call ultimately about this. So while I have attempted to make this work, and have sought to do this, I concede it is much more challenging – when you get into the detail – than at first glance.”
A 2020 feasibility study, which found the city stadium was preferable over one at EPIC, found it could seat 25,000 if Parkes Way was moved up by 12 metres and some changes to the design were made.
Mr Barr said the design of the stadium would have to be very tight and steep to fit all of those people, and some of the surrounding roads would need to be closed.
The Chief Minister said challenges continued to arise the further along the details phase the project travelled and it was going to be a case of a good outcome, not a perfect one.
Questions around how much the city stadium would cost linger. The 2020 study said it could cost up to $700 million.
But Mr Barr came under fire for a throwaway comment made before the Budget suggesting the stadium could cost $1 billion. He later said that figure was to illustrate a “rhetorical point” and set realistic expectations for the community.
Mr Barr said the focus was now on the potential redevelopment of Canberra Stadium and the AIS precinct.
The AIS idea depends on the ACT Government brokering a deal with the Australian Sports Commission, which owns the land at Bruce.
Mr Barr said conversations were ongoing but he believed there were opportunities for a “more refreshed and compact AIS”.
A smaller AIS – and a reopened arena – would mean the remaining “underutilised” land could be used for Commonwealth housing initiatives or ACT Build to Rent projects.
“I think the campus is big enough to also sustain hotel accommodation, restaurants, bars and cafes,” he said.
“We could produce quite an exciting new sports, recreation and sports medicine precinct that would also provide some well-located land for additional housing. It could be that a number of problems are resolved in a comprehensive package.”
Fans have long called for a new stadium in the city and Raiders coach Ricky Stuart has gone on the record in support of this, describing the Bruce facility as an “embarrassment”.
The city stadium became a hot topic during the recent Federal election when now-independent Senator David Pocock said he would use his position on the crossbench to lobby the Federal government to jointly fund a new shared Stadium and Convention Centre Precinct on the Civic site.
He said at the time the Federal government should take the lead in that project.