To kickstart a better Auckland, we need the Commonwealth Games

Urban renewal, affordable housing and improved transport – all from a sporting event. Mark Thomas says rather than being a financial dog, the Commonwealth Games would give Auckland’s infrastructure planning some impetus.

A government a little larger than New Zealand’s, with a capital city a bit smaller than Auckland, has just completed a six year project substantially improving transport infrastructure, building more affordable housing and creating a new innovation business. Oh, and they built a new stadium too.

But rather than agonising over each one of these big projects – as governments usually do – they approached them as part of one big investment opportunity. Absent context, it might have looked like a version of the monopoly game was being played as properties were acquired, houses built and railways initiated. It was indeed a game: the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

I spent five days on the Gold Coast during the games as part of a trade delegation, and after seeing what they had achieved I wondered: what if the Commonwealth Games were held in Auckland? Apart from beating the 1990 medal count, could it solve the serial stadium sagas, help hapless home-seekers and transform the city’s transport? Because that is exactly what the Gold Coast has done.

We missed a moment

Eden Park dressed in whites, under lights. (Photo: Theo van de Wetering)

In 2010 the Key government looked at bidding for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and concluded they couldn’t see the economic payback from the (then) $600 million price tag. But that assessment was carried out as the world was still reeling from the global financial crisis – and the government was staring at a $8.2 billion 2010/2011 budget deficit.

Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett, a member of the group exploring the bid, disagreed at the time, saying there were many long-term benefits for both Auckland and New Zealand which justified it. These included using the athletes’ village for urban renewal and affordable housing, improved transport connections and creating a cluster of high performance sports, research and medical facilities. Yes, just as the Gold Coast has done.

With the $240m Eden Park upgrade set to be completed later that year there was no prospect a new stadium would have resulted from any 2018 bid, but housing, transport and other value-adding activities would have been created. We know this, because that’s what has happened in all of the recent Commonwealth Games.

A Commonwealth Games 101

Did the Manchester games put the city on the map?(Image: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images)

There’s a general perception that the Commonwealth Games are a financial dog. But this appears coloured by high profile Olympic Games examples and the chaotic Delhi Commonwealth Games experience in 2010. In fact the last four Commonwealth Games which New Zealand can more readily compare itself to (Manchester, Melbourne, Glasgow and the Gold Coast) had very positive returns.

A report on Manchester 12 years after the 2002 Commonwealth Games said millions more people now visit the city as result – giving the city greater status on the world stage. It said the city’s achievement of the Commonwealth Games, and reputation, had provided the city much needed additional investment in the succeeding years.

An Insight Economics assessment of the 2006 Melbourne Games praised the event for achieving all of its triple bottom line objectives and provided lasting benefits to the city and the state.

A post games review by Scotland’s independent audit office concluded the 2014 Glasgow Games were successful both operationally and at a legacy level.

On the Gold Coast, apart from the well-run events, excellent transport system and other amenities, the additional legacy benefits were obvious. The Queensland government used the Commonwealth Games as a catalyst to nearly double its light rail investment, which now links the fast-growing Gold Coast to Brisbane’s train network.

The athletes’ village, which housed 6,600 during the Commonwealth Games, is becoming a mixed-use residential and commercial health and knowledge precinct, providing 1,250 apartments and townhouses. The state government intends this new precinct, adjacent to Griffiths University, will become one of the most advanced health and knowledge innovation hubs in the Asia-Pacific.

The state kept their costs lower by using temporary rather than permanent facilities and, much like reports indicate for Auckland, 80% of the venues were already in place.

New Zealand versus Australia, Gold Coast Commonwealth Games rugby sevens final. (Image: Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth games Facebook)

State Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told me that in addition to the transport, housing and innovation benefits, the games are expected to lead to $535m in additional exports and foreign direct investment over the next four years.

Queensland has a bit larger population than New Zealand, and Brisbane is a little smaller than Auckland. The Gold Coast has only 600,000 residents – but infrastructure to cope with 1.2 million international visitors each year – fewer than Auckland’s 1.5 million.

The Finance (and Sports) Minister Grant Robertson says he hasn’t got the money for a new Auckland stadium – so I don’t expect the Commonwealth Games is high on his list. But with a budget surplus rising from $3.1b this year to $7.3b by 2022 the main issue is not about money but about priorities, or more specifically what is the most effective strategy to address the priorities.

A Commonwealth Games should be seen for what it is: an alternate way to deal more effectively with a series of existing priorities. It can be a catalyst for the transport and housing investment the country’s largest city so badly needs, but also something which can also help implement smarter city-level technology innovation than is currently in train. These are all more important priorities than just a new stadium. But New Zealand has a big problem to solve there too.

The stadium saga

Tottenham Hotspurs’ new stadium. (Image: screengrab)

Eden Park, the country’s national stadium, currently owes $50m which it cannot repay. With substantial yearly interest payments on this it can’t fully fund depreciation or make adequate future capital investments – which the council’s stadium arm thinks will be $250m over the next 15 years.

But the nature of what this stadium investment should be is changing radically as technology and consumer trends alter stadium designs.

Tottenham Hotspur’s new 61,000-seat stadium in north London will feature heated seats with built-in USB ports, in-seat click and collect food and beverage ordering, real time information on parking spot availability, concession stand line length and wait time information.

In the near future, at stadiums, your phone will tell you where a better seat is, where your friends are located and the quickest route to the loo. The stadium app and free wifi will let you replay just-seen scenes. These smart stadiums will be more a home cinema/movie theatre experience – with better ambience.

But parts of Mayor Goff’s million dollar stadium report that have not been censured confirm two things most already know: building stadiums by themselves doesn’t make sense as they usually do not provide an economic return, and a new stadium investment needs a big event as a catalyst.

Auckland 2026

Getty Images

Manchester, Melbourne, Glasgow and the Gold Coast have all experienced powerful and durable infrastructure transformation since their events. A transformation much greater than what took place at Auckland’s Viaduct for New Zealand’s first America’s Cup win could come from a New Zealand equivalent.

As the government and Auckland council struggle with the size and scale of the various transport, housing and other challenges, the opportunity exists to forge one Commonwealth Games ring to bind them all.

Birmingham in the UK will host the next Commonwealth Games (having paid just $330,000 for a feasibility study on a billion dollar project – which actually came up with specific answers!). After the announcement, Birmingham Council’s leader said the city had a desperate need for high-quality housing, and it would have been much harder to meet that demand if they had not decided secured the games. A city report found the Commonwealth Games will generate a gross economic benefit of $858m to the city, and a benefit of $2.1b to the UK. 

While Auckland heads towards its eighth year of debating what stadium and sport should go where, Perth has spent the last four years actually building their new 60,000 seat stadium, which has been designed so all codes can play including AFL, cricket, rugby union and rugby league, soccer and concerts.

The second New Zealand Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974 is where the term ‘the Friendly Games’ was coined. Although there is often not a lot that is friendly with the political debate about how to solve transport and housing, sport can unify New Zealanders like few other things. Both Grant Robertson and National’s sports spokesperson Nikki Kaye were at the Gold Coast.

What a legacy it could be for Auckland, if they can use their mutual sporting passions to fire an Auckland Commonwealth Games starting gun.

Mark Thomas leads a smart cities enterprise based in Singapore. He was an elected member of Auckland Council from 2010-2016.


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