At the sports park show last night at the Opera House, Sam Kelt and Mayor Yule did a fine job of parrying skeptical thrusts from the audience. And enough sporties were present — suitably grateful for the baubles the sports complex promises — to make the evening’s exchange pretty much a draw.

A few observations …

1. No one at HDC or Kelt Capital even attempts anymore to defend the use of prime land for the complex … their hand is plainly in the cookie jar. This particular aspect of the sports park matter — a show stopper — will most likely be left to the Environment Court.

2. Not all ratepayers present conceded that sport is the magic elixir that will cure every ill from tagging to smoking to excessive use of electronic appliances. Some even think — leaving sporties aghast — that sports sucks too much from the public trough already, compared to other needs.

3. Even for those prepared to acknowledge the beneficial role of sport, there is a fundamental gulf between those who would pursue that benefit via a sports complex versus those who believe a full range of community- and school-based investments would be more effective, engage more people, and be less expensive.

We heard heaps of fluffy rhetoric about “sports programming” at the new complex that will magically entice more participation from area youth. But park proponents neglected to mention that their massive proposed investment includes just three — that’s 3 — new staff to accomplish this miracle that schools, clubs and parents are apparently failing at. Depending on the moment last night, at times HB was painted as suffering from a glut of athleticism that is straining our facilities; yet at other times, youth are portrayed as glued to their TVs, gameboxes and mobile phones.

Other than to die-hard sporties, park proponents have failed to establish a convincing nexus between building a complex and effecting change in health-related behaviors. Unless that is done, the park remains just an expensive toy for a few sports codes, whose hearts beat strong in anticipation!

3. Then there’s the issue of transparency.

As Mayor Yule conceded, this is the biggest project HDC has ever undertaken. It’s fraught with financial risks. And with the Council’s poor track record of scoping and managing quasi-business ventures and big ticket capital projects, ratepayers would deserve to be skeptical, even in the best of financial climates. But these days ratepayers are feeling a lot of pain and the stakes are high.

For the Mayor and Council, another, much bigger Splash Planet would be just more egg on the face. For ratepayers, it would be a serious hit on the pocketbook for some, and for others, a huge diversion of resources that could be better spent elsewhere.

It’s only fitting, therefore, that a project of this unprecedented magnitude be accompanied by unprecedented transparency. Many of us, frankly, have no reason to trust — sight unseen — the assumptions, claims and analyses of the Council and its various consultants. One says badminton; another says GymSports; tomorrow volleyball … maybe fencing.

A commitment was made last night by Mayor Yule to lay on the table the research, analysis and consultation Kelt Capital and other project consultants have done.

More transparency is a start. But that leaves to a bunch of citizen watchdogs the job of examining, late in the game, with no resources, the case that HDC has enthusiastically built-up with thousands of consulting dollars over the past year plus.

This is the fundamental problem with HDC bringing the project forward as a committed advocate, when it should be offering its ratepayers genuine alternatives and rigorous pros & cons from a neutral posture. It’s what makes the whole affair seem like a hustle.

4. And there’s Sam and his fundraising. Sam fails and the project fails.

In one moment, Sam is telling us he’s only been thinking about fundraising since February (!), implying it’s unfair or unrealistic to expect results so soon. But moments later, he’s hinting at broad positive response from would-be investors, and seducing us with the glimmer of their “indicative” interest in funding.

I’m very familiar with the use of the carefully chosen word “indicative” in fundraising. It means “maybe” with a bunch of strings attached. It’s what you say in settings like Sam found himself in last night, where you must say something encouraging, but you can’t make things up. If the prospect said anything less terminal than “Forget it! Get lost!” … then you can report “indicative” interest.

For example: Sam, would you say you have “indicative” interest in funding from the Napier Council? I’m not sure you could claim to have an “indicative” expression of interest from Hastings ratepayers!

5. Which leads to the ultimate chicken and egg question here.

Sam and Lawrence protest that until the park cake has been mostly baked, it’s not ready to be served to ertswhile external funders. So we shouldn’t expect to see real (as opposed to merely “indicative”) funding commitments for some time yet.

On the other hand, they are trying to cram that same not-yet-baked cake down our throats right now. But aren’t we funders too?

If it’s not ready for “them,” it’s not ready for us. Who deserves the first reassurance, anyway? HB ratepayers … that the external funding is at hand and the operating assumptions are sound? Or external funders … that HB ratepayers are on board?

The answer should be easy to HDC … we “internal funders” also vote!

Tom

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