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Timeout on Christchurch’s big sports project

Early timelines are slipping for Christchurch’s long-awaited metro sports facility but the Government still says it’ll be built on schedule. David Williams reports.

Post-quake Christchurch adjusted to shaking ground, cracked houses and wonky streets by referring to the “new normal”. Now, more than seven years after the 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people, the newer normal, if you like, is watching the erosion of timeframes for major, Government-funded projects and waiting, with uncertainty, for the promised work to be done.

The city’s metro sports facility is just the latest example. But this time the delays are happening under the Labour-led coalition.

Announced in 2012 with a suite of anchor projects, the metro sports facility was meant to be finished in 2016. But it was still a gravelled site when, after last year’s election, Christchurch Rebuild Minister Megan Woods revealed a $75 million cost blowout to $321 million. That led to the cancellation of a contract with its preferred contractor.

Months were spent considering – and then scrapping – an idea to combine the new facility with a multi-use stadium. An axe was taken to the project’s original design, with about $50 million in savings being found.

In late April, Woods announced the facility’s final design was completed and the project was “back on track”. The next morning’s article in The Press newspaper said diggers were “weeks away” from moving in – specifically, earthworks were expected to start within 10 weeks.

Except they didn’t.

An artist's impression of the metro sports facility's show court. Image: Ōtākaro

Ten weeks later, which ticked over last Friday, and there’s no sign of work at the massive inner-city site near Hagley Park – bordered by Moorhouse Ave, and Antigua, St Asaph and Stewart Streets – which has been purged of signs related to the metro sports project.

A spokesman for Woods says Crown rebuild agency Ōtākaro is still evaluating tenders from ground works contractors. “A start date for the work will depend on the contractor selected and methodology used, but it is expected that site work will commence later this month, or early August, and will ramp up throughout the year.”

The Government’s still saying the facility will be completed by late 2021.

Asked what she’s heard, Christchurch Netball Centre board chair Chris Rodda says: “To be perfectly honest we’ve heard nothing. You’re giving me more of an update than I’ve been given.”

The wait for a new complex has been frustrating, she says, but waiting is nothing new in Christchurch. “Let’s face it, nothing’s straight-forward.”

Multi-purpose venue

The metro sports facility, which will be known as Taiwhanga Rehia, will feature, among other things, a 10-lane, 50m competition pool with seats for 1000 spectators, a diving pool and aquatic leisure facility, five hydroslides, multi-purpose indoor courts with capacity for nine netball courts and a 2500-seat show court. The city council will contribute $147 million to the project.

Woods’ spokesman says savings identified from the recent review “primarily come from changing the procurement approach and tendering a build-only contract”. “The final saving amounts are commercially sensitive but are mainly from altering the design and reducing the amount of glazing, removing the entrance canopy and changing some of the materials used throughout the facility and associated car park.”

A formal request for expressions of interest was issued in early June for the main construction contract. That process closes in a few weeks. Then, in September, a shortlist of firms will be given a formal request for tender, “along with completion of all final design documentation”.

Ōtākaro expects to award the main construction contract for the facility by April next year, with work to begin shortly after.

That’s the same timeframe announced three months ago. However it differs from what Woods said last November. Back then, she said Ōtākaro would go out for build-only tenders in March/April, with tenders closing this month and a contractor appointed in September.

Already, Crown costs for the project have hit $89.4 million. Woods’ office confirms $58.4 million has been spent on land acquisition and demolitions as at February 28 and $31 million in “other” costs to January 31.

And there’s more to come. Land Information New Zealand is negotiating to buy a small strip of land on the west side of the site being used as a Canterbury District Health Board car park.

“My big concern is that every day the minister delays decisions on this project, costs increase and we get less building for the money we are spending.” – Nicky Wagner

National list MP Nicky Wagner says she’s deeply disappointed at the pace of work on the facility. In comments that will cause conniptions for those frustrated at her party’s foot-dragging while in power, Wagner says Woods, on becoming minister, called for report after report instead of getting on with the job. April’s announcement was “very similar” to a call National was ready to make at the time of the election – “but protocol prevented it happening”.

“The metro sports facility is urgent – for recreation, as a competitive sports venue and to bring people into our city,” Wagner says. “My big concern is that every day the minister delays decisions on this project, costs increase and we get less building for the money we are spending.”

Given the construction industry is starting to push back against the way large, risky projects have been structured, Wagner might just have a point.

Labour had a surge of support in Christchurch at the general election after saying it would speed up earthquake recovery work. But it’s now realising how hard that is.

How the metro sports facility's entrance might look. Image: Ōtākaro

So there’s at least another three years to wait for netball and other codes until the metro sports facility is built.

Meanwhile, Christchurch’s 12 premier grade netball teams play indoors on a Tuesday night at two separate venues. Its juniors – school kids in years one to four – play indoors on a Friday afternoon at Wilding Park, a tennis venue. School holiday programmes are held in various school halls and gymnasiums to ensure they’re not scuttled by the fickle winter weather.

“There’s a lot of juggling, shifting resources and equipment around the city,” Rodda says. “We all know it’s not ideal – it’s not new news around that. We’ll just plug on and do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

Even when the metro sports facility is built, netball is just one code that will be lining up to use it – like the way, now, the sport uses Pioneer and Cowles stadiums. The sole netball-only facility in Christchurch is the outdoor courts at Hagley Park, a stone’s throw from the proposed new metro sports centre.

As with other sports in Christchurch, Rodda says netball is suffering from the diaspora moving to satellite towns like Rolleston and its inability to offer non-Saturday matches for people who work weekends or odd hours. A new indoor facility might offer that chance, but hope is being mixed with a dose of realism.

“We have said right from the get-go, when it was finalised, that nine courts was never, ever going to be sufficient,” Rodda says. “But nine courts are better than none.”

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