Auckland braces for another dose of Cup fever

With the champagne no doubt still flowing in Bermuda it's too early to say even if the America's Cup regatta is heading back to New Zealand and the City of Sails. But we can speculate, writes Alexia Russell

Remember when the Viaduct Basin was a shut-off industrial dump that stank of fish? Or when only die-hard yachties had any interest in the America's Cup? The days before [Sir] Peter Blake and his red sock army arrived and changed everything?

The downtown Auckland hotspot didn't get so much of a spruce-up than a major overhaul, with development efforts continuing today.

Hoteliers and restaurateurs are no doubt rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the return of those glory days of 2000 and 2003, when thousands thronged to the newly renovated viaduct to wish Team New Zealand well, and welcome the boats back on race days.

But where the syndicates' boat sheds once stood are high rises, a theatre, restaurants and an entertainment precinct. If the America's Cup comes back to Auckland, is there room for everyone?

The Viaduct Basin has been so successful that it's now full - every base from the 2000 and 2003 challengers has gone, the space eaten up. Where Team New Zealand and Alinghi once parked is the site for the new Park Hyatt Hotel development. The area where the silos sit at the moment could, in theory, be developed, but some of those tanks still contain flammable materials, including paint.

The logistics of moving them, and the kilometres of pipes and cables surrounding that sea wall, are massive.

"It's very hard to imagine where the syndicates could go," a property expert told Newsroom. Captain Cook wharf is a possibility but it would require Ports of Auckland to move mountains - of Japanese cars.

"The Port's not too keen on letting a stadium being built on that site, but maybe if it was just temporary they'd be more cooperative," the expert said.

Ports of Auckland: Take a cue from London

It’s not a case of non-cooperation as far as the Port is concerned. POAL spokesman Matt Ball says Captain Cook is just too busy to be moved – “we’re over-capacity all the time now, at both Bledisloe and Captain Cook.

“Even if a car handling building was constructed to create more space for vehicles, ships would still have to berth there.

“Everyone thinks it’s a big space, and that things should be shifted somewhere else. In reality it’s a small space. Of the hundreds of kilometres of Auckland coastline there are three to four from the Harbour Bridge to the end of the port used for commercial purposes. You have your leisure boats at Westhaven, the Viaduct, commercial fishing, the tanks, the cruise ships which need more and more room, more and more ferries, and freight – and we are busy; the port is congested. There is no room.”

Most waterfront spaces – west of the Harbour Bridge, or Onehunga – would only be viable at high tide. Ball suggests looking at the problem as London did for the 2012 Olympics, with construction taking place in an area that needed rejuvenating. He also mentions the silos, but says their leases aren’t up for some time yet. As for the suggestion that the Halsey St wharf could be extended, Ball references Auckland Council’s determination to stop POAL’s expansion into the harbour when he says “if you don’t want the port to expand, why would you propose another expansion? Maybe they don’t mind if it’s for the America’s Cup.”

The east London district of Stratford underwent significant redevelopment for the London 2012 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images

Council: Who pays?

Auckland Council, bogged down by the twin terrors of the city’s seemingly unsolvable housing and transport issues, is not likely to be going cap-in-hand to ratepayers for around $100 million of unbudgeted money for a project that was identified in a 2012 plan as something that would be nice to have for 2032 – 2042.

No matter how excited the nation is today, even mad keen yachties will have to examine the logic of going ahead with a protrusion into the Waitemata Harbour, when they gathered on the water en masse to protest against the Port’s plan to – yes, that’s right, extend Bledisloe Wharf into the harbour.

"We would have to be absolutely transparent with ratepayers over what they are getting and what they are paying.”

They were backed by the Council’s planning committee chairman Chris Darby, a keen sailor who was in San Diego for the 1995 America’s Cup win.

“I think it would be somewhat hypocritical to have a knee-jerk reaction to extend Halsey St for what could be a one-off defence,” he says.

Darby agrees with our property specialist in saying the Viaduct Harbour isn’t a possibility – “it’s closed in with development.” He says the question of location will only be decided once an analysis is done of what the needs are for a regatta.

While admitting “Emirates Team New Zealand would have had discussions with parts of the Council about the possibility of coming here,” Darby says it’s very much been a case of waiting until the event was won.

“We will await a formal approach from ETNZ and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron who effectively are the owners of the Cup and have the rights to stage it.” He tosses in the possibility that Emirates might want to take the regatta to Dubai, but Sir Stephen Tindall’s involvement would indicate it’s coming to Auckland. (“Yachting belongs in Auckland.”)

Darby points out there’s still a lot we don’t know – the type of boats that will be raced, campaign requirements, space needs for an unknown number of challenger syndicates, and logistics surrounding that.

In tossing up ideas he mentions the possibility of using the Naval Base in Devonport, or accelerating plans to remove the silos from the tank farm. “Can we negotiate to call those leases in early?” The transition on Wynyard Wharf to an “iconic” park is talked about in that 2012 report.

“Some councillors including myself have asked for consideration for the whole of Wynyard Point to be entirely landscaped into a blue-green marine park. But we might need the powers of Government to negotiate those leases.

“Our ‘missions critical’ are public transport and housing,” he says.

“These events pop up. You win something and the owner says we’d like to have it at your place, thanks. You don’t say ‘no’. But there’s always the question of who stumps up and pays. We would have to be absolutely transparent with ratepayers over what they are getting and what they are paying.”

The big plus side – this could be the catalyst for speeding up a big project, such as light rail from the city to the airport.

The public will expect a business case

Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett has no doubts that Auckland could host the event, as it's proven before it can handle big occasions. He says New Zealand has run with the 2011 Rugby World Cup "stadium of four million" mantra.

Barnett believes we’d find room somehow for the syndicates to park - “Is there a chance that the Naval Base might be empty?”

He says the big thing now is to give Emirates Team New Zealand the courtesy and some breathing space to make some decisions.

"Where the race track is, isn't really going to matter," he says.

Wind and space issues could mean it's north of the harbour near Whangaparaoa, or in the Hauraki Gulf. But the centre of events, where people will gather, needs to be in Auckland.

Barnett anticipates a special kind of tourist for America's Cup racing, the high-end, high-spend, kind.

"This is not like the World Masters Games where people are looking to do it as cheaply as they can," he says. "These [high net worth individuals] come here and identify opportunities, see innovation and see business potential. They stay at the right places and eat in the right restaurants, and travel. We are well placed to accommodate them."

The government will have to be involved, says Barnett, but it will have to sell the worth of whatever investment they make to the public. "People are more savvy now. They will ask to see the business case for funding. What are people going to spend? How many jobs is this going to create? But people do understand the benefits, and we're seeing that now with the Lions tour this week - it's more than just a bunch of campervans coming through."

Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) general manager of Visitor and External Relations, Steve Armitage, says the city is no stranger to hosting big international sporting events, but any major event which seeks support from the council will need to be assessed against a robust business case before any decisions are made. They would also need to be in partnership with central government and the private sector, "in order to maximise the economic return opportunity and deliver a world-class event."

Armitage says it would also be contingent of the cup defender's decisions about competition format, host country, and host port.

Supporters welcome Team New Zealand back to shore after the first race of the 2000 America's Cup. Photo: Getty Images

 

"The whole country will benefit"

The president of Hospitality New Zealand’s Auckland branch, Russell Gray, says until now the sector has been trying not to think of the consequences of a win so as not to jinx it. “We’ve all been holding our breath,” he says.

As the country exhales today, this industry in particular is looking at good times ahead.

“This is not just a one-off event,”says Gray. “The build up to this will happen over many years … and with it comes all the ancillary events that come with being the America’s Cup holders.’ Gray says it’s incredibly exciting, and the whole country, not just Auckland, will benefit.

“A lot of people don’t understand just how significant this is, but they’ll come to appreciate it as we come closer and closer to the defence of it. It just proves once again how well we perform on the international stage, not just in [sailing] but in many sectors.”

Gray believes we will now embark on a period of significant stimulus – that the victory will act as a major catalyst for new developments. “Whether that’s an expanded waterfront, a new stadium, or new hotels.” Several current projects, including Commercial Bay, which will replace the old Downtown mall, will be completed by the time the next regatta is run. As for Auckland’s capacity and capability to host such an event – “literally hundreds and hundreds of new venues have sprung up, as the city grows, that cater for international visitors,” he says.

“I think we have the size, the capacity and the resources. From a hospitality point of view we are operating 24/7, 365 days a year as an international city. We’ve just seen that this weekend as 30,000 Lions fans fit into the city quite well.”

Richard Gladwell, editor of the Sail-World website, believes Team New Zealand won't even have looked at any aspect of defending the Cup before getting the silverware on board. In Bermuda for the racing, Gladwell saw first-hand how high the bar was set on the island in terms of the facilities and spectator integration. "Auckland would do well to look seriously at what has been done here," he says.

"They will need to appoint a Minister for the America’s Cup with a brief to bang heads and get things done."

He says it is likely the regatta will come back to Auckland, and certainly the city has the ability to run it. But it will be played out on the Hauraki Gulf, not in the inner harbour, which is "too small and restricted for the multitude of wind directions in Auckland." Most of Team NZ’s testing before the 35th America's Cup was done out the back of Waiheke Island, in calmer waters and away from casual prying eyes.

Getting the regatta to Auckland however will require a mighty effort on the part of city officials.

"The biggest problem with Auckland are the Council and the politicians plus the vested interest groups, and they will need to appoint a Minister for the America’s Cup with a brief to bang heads and get things done," he says.

Gladwell predicts the next Cup regatta wouldn't be till 2020 or 2021, and that Team NZ will bring it back to more of a traditional contest, in line with the Deed of Gift. A heavy nationality clause is likely - a move that most definitely favours the strong sailing nations of New Zealand, Australia and the UK, with Gladwell predicting the teams would have to be 75 or 80 percent nationals. It's likely the boats will also have to be constructed in the challenger's own country. Serious attempts will probably be made at containing costs.

"The bottom line from Team NZ is that they will talk to the prospective challengers and then decide where to go from there. They are interested in a Cup which gets more than five challengers," says Gladwell.

It's already been confirmed that New Zealand will rekindle its partnership with Italy, with the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron announcing this morning that Luna Rossa will be the Challenger of Record for the 36th America's Cup.

Several of the Luna Rossa team work with Team NZ including skipper Max Sirena. Their team principal, Patrizio Bertelli, has some very firm views on the Cup and those are not too far away from Team NZ’s, says Gladwell.

As for the boats - how could they turn away from the foiling cats we've seen screaming up the course in such spectacular fashion?

"There is a possibility that they would stay with the AC50, but I would think they will look at a boat which can fit into a travel lift - which means maybe a foiling monohull. But while they are great downwind boats - upwind they are not good," says Gladwell. He believes the races will be designed to take longer than the current 18-odd minutes.

Another source close to Team NZ - too close, he didn't want to be named - told Newsroom that having brought America's Cup racing to the excitement level of motorsport, with foiling catamarans, they couldn't go back to monohulls and two-hour slugfests of races. He said the agreement Oracle bullied the other four challengers into signing can now be ripped up and re-written. One of the things Team NZ are likely to look at is whether they need a pre-Cup challenger series at all - it's fleet racing, not match racing, and makes the event a lot more expensive.

And what will Oracle do now? Does Larry Ellison give up now? Does Team NZ move the racing onto a four-year cycle, like the Olympic Games and Rugby World Cup?

He agrees with Gladwell that Team NZ is likely to bring back some of the Cup's more traditional elements, such as the challenge being between yacht clubs. He also thinks the nationality clause will be strengthened.

"What everyone is waiting for is the Cup to be cleaned up," he said.

Maybe in the sailing world they are - but in Auckland, they're just waiting for the Auld Mug to come back and the good times to roll in again on an AC50.

The team arrives back next Thursday, July 6, and a victory parade is planned for the same day. 

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