The political landscape over the next three-year term will potentially feature two substantial landmarks: the Ruataniwha dam project and a referendum on the amalgamation of Hawke’s Bay.

Lessons to benefit future decision-making on both issues can be found wrapped up in a neat bundle from the past called Nelson Park.

In one fell swoop in November 2006 Hastings District, through a public referendum, sold a community asset to a large format retail developer, initiated a major public project centralising sport and recreation facilities, sweetened the deal with a multi-million dollar commitment to creating more greenspace in the central business district, and raised the profile of, and promises about, social capital.

Now, seven years later, what have we learned from Nelson Park? What became of the last big tasty pledge made to Hawke’s Bay? Did the 14,500 voters who said Yes in the referendum get the goodies promised on the packet?

The promise: sell Nelson Park, use the money ($18.6 million) as partial funding to build a Regional Sports Park (RSP) – $11.35 million ended up going in this direction – and with the change develop urban pocket parks (one done, one pending) and the William Nelson Skatepark (now underway after a few hurdles).

The RSP was a $50-60 million project set out in three stages. Stage 1: move the track and grandstand. Stage 2: build new facilities for netball and football. Stage 3: a building for indoor sport of some kind.

GymSports was the initial hot contender for use of this space. The regional aspect of the RSP came in through a proposed velodrome, now off the table as Hawke’s Bay subsequently missed out on its bid to deliver this nationally significant facility.

Two thirds of the way in, Hastings District Councillor Wayne Bradshaw is watching the RSP with interest as it tries to deliver on the big promises of 2006.

“To promote a $50-60 million project of which only $19 million was going to be provided by the Council … some would say visionary, but I would say delusional,” says Bradshaw.

Social Capitalists

Part of the deal was social capital. That was the ‘sizzle that sold the sausage’. It was for the greater good we would be ticking Yes on the referendum voting paper. It would be Yes to getting our lazy behinds off the couch and into action, Yes to building strong community connections, Yes to becoming a more active, able and healthy community. And where would all this improvement take place? The RSP.

Councillor Wayne Bradshaw

Wayne Bradshaw understands the importance of social capital in the community. “I agree with the concept – active people, active communities is great – but I believe you are going to get better accessibility and affordability when the activities are done within the communities themselves,” he says. “We’ve got the parks, we’ve got the community that wants to be more active and I think we’ll get far more positive outcomes if we do it within communities.”

So what happened to all that social capital we were going to accumulate – a new kind of wealth to make up for any shortfalls in the proposed budget?

We don’t know because no one has tried to find out. Research is yet to take place around how our health and wellbeing outcomes are improving thanks to the RSP.

Bradshaw: “We were over-sold on it and if there were any benefits to come out of it in social capital then I would really like to see the results of the measurements. If you base a project on certain improvements then you should be measuring them.”

Netball and athletics have had small increases in participation since moving to the RSP, but there are not the throngs of people building up their social capital that we imagined there might be. We’ve built the bones, but there’s nothing left in the pot to drive participation, or measure its outcomes.

Lawrence Yule is the multi-hatted Mayor of Hastings and chair of the Regional Sports Park.

“We’ve done some of that stuff around measurement, but we haven’t got the financial where-with-all to look at it closely,” Yule says, careful to point out he’s talking as RSP chair rather than HDC Mayor.

“There has already been some social capital gains in terms of events. There are huge things going on that are in their infancy and to promote that costs a lot of money. We just don’t have spare money to do that at this stage.”
Colin Stone, CEO of Sport HB and a member of the RSP board, agrees measuring success has been a challenge.

“Collectively we have found it difficult to facilitate good, reliable measurement for the sports sector. Important, reliable baseline information is critical for local authorities to anchor their decisions against. It’s been frustrating for all concerned. I do believe progress is now being made, albeit slower than we would like.”

Still, Stone sees a direct correlation between sport and social capital. “I call sport the superglue of Hawke’s Bay because it’s a great way of bringing communities together, to celebrate together, to seize the opportunity together, to suffer trials and tribulations. That stuff is difficult to measure but it’s inherently important to Hawke’s Bay,” he says.

Tale of two sports hubs

Jock Mackintosh is the CEO of the Regional Sports Park. He has a public relations background and was originally hired to give Hastings District Council communications advice around the time the RSP was first conceived.

Mackintosh has been in play since the place was just a set of drawings. He’s nurtured it along and he’s proud to be part of it now that it’s up and running. He reports to the RSP Trust Board, and they in turn go to Hastings District Council for funds, rather than Mackintosh working directly for the Council. In many ways he’s out on his own, ‘chief cook and bottle washer’: managing a complex and ongoing building project, fundraising, presenting at local and central government meetings, marketing the place, dealing with users, looking after gear, managing the park, finding ways to use it.

On the other side of town, the Sports Centre on Railway Road is Hastings’ ‘other’ sports hub. With three full-time staff and tucked safely under the wing of the management structure of HDC, the place is packed with activity. It’s within walking distance from at least ten schools and from the markings on the floor it’s obvious how many codes use this space. Alongside basketball and badminton, there’s futsal, volleyball and netball, gym and figure skating.

Social connections are also being made here through use by church and youth groups, ethnic groups have celebration meals in the meeting room, which is also used for first aid and driver training, and weight watchers. Green prescriptions run a number of programmes from here. There are tumbling tots and active seniors based here, holiday and after school programmes, netball and basketball academies, and during the day schools without gyms use the facilities.

Where Sports Centre manager Opal Taylor and her team have a slightly shabby but well loved building they squeeze every last drop of space and time out of, Jock Mackintosh has a flash looking facility that’s mainly empty.

The codes that looked after themselves when located at Nelson Park (athletics) and Sylvan Road (netball) still look after themselves. Netball participation has grown 20% at secondary school level, only 6% at primary school level. But the programmes and connections that lie at the very heart of social capital need some loving.

There are some glimmers of that alluring social capital. Waitangi Day and Matariki both see strong crowds using the RSP. The centre of the athletics track has been cleverly used for kapa haka. A storage bay has been reconfigured as a crossfit gym. Blo karters use the carpark on Sundays.

Mackintosh is so keen to get people involved in what’s happening at the RSP that he packs his crossfit kit into a trailer and trucks it out to Flaxmere. Turns out transport and accessibility are indeed key when it comes to participation.

Skate park, a benefit of Nelson Park sale

The RSP’s distance from council in terms of management could also be seen as an issue. Where the Sports Centre is a community facility and therefore directly accountable to HDC, the RSP is a separate entity and so lacks the transparency that comes from being directly under the council umbrella.

What about the dollars?

Through June 2012, the RSP has cost $20.26 million to develop, including $11.35 from Nelson Park proceeds and HDC loans of $6.5 million. Private donations (chiefly from Higgins and Hastings PaknSave (Smith family) make up the balance.

Annually, the RSP costs Hastings ratepayers $513,000 in debt interest and repayment, and another $200,000 plus for operating support.

Jock Mackintosh: “The income we receive from HDC is $214,000 per year. This is mainly based on what council previously paid for existing facilities. In addition we raise approximately $200,000 annually. The balance of our income comes from users.The end result is we make about $100,000 surplus each year. This money builds up as a reserve and is available for facility maintenance.”

Much of the RSP and day-to-day running costs are covered by corporate sponsorships and philanthropic individuals. The codes themselves pay only a fraction of the costs associated with running the facility. “As a rough rule of thumb, sports tend to pay across the country about 10% the cost of providing the sport,” says Mackintosh.

This year HDC has promised $1.5 million to the RSP: $850,000 for football changing rooms, lights for one football field, enhancements to netball courts, weather shelters at the netball courts and limestone track additions and $663,000 for a potential hockey turf (an international turf is estimated at around $3.5 million).

Future thinking

To support its existence (and self-designation as a ‘regional’ facility), the RSP has always had in its plan a lynchpin facility of national significance. Originally it was to be a velodrome, but a bid for that project was unsuccessful and when it failed a $1 million injection from Napier City Council was withdrawn. GymSports has also been central to the plan, but this has now been put on the back burner.

Currently work is underway to secure a relationship with Hockey NZ that will see an international pitch built at the RSP. This is yet to be finalised, but either a domestic (one pitch) or an international (one and a half pitches) capability will be built at the site. Sport HB, the RSP and HDC are all gunning for a tier one international hockey facility, which would be the only one of its type on New Zealand.

Lawrence Yule: “We’re doing that so we can secure a multi-year agreement with a significant number of teams coming into Hawke’s Bay. It might only take the turf out of action for about a month every year. The rest of time our own players, at all levels, can use the turf.”

Alongside Hastings District Council’s earmarked $663,000 for the hockey facility, Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has promised $2 million if the turf is an international one and all parts of the hockey community support. Jock Mackintosh is presenting figures to HBRC in September, at which time he hopes to have secured a firm commitment from Hockey NZ.

Hockey is a growing sport in Hawke’s Bay, especially at that all-important grass roots level. There are 2,200 hockey players here; 85% are school kids. According to Colin Stone, the average turf should cater for 800, and Hawke’s Bay has two at Park Island. Building a turf at the RSP is common sense.

Other than hockey, there is still the planned-for RSP indoor sport building, which as yet has an undecided resident code or codes.

Hastings District Council has $2 million flagged for the RSP in its Long Term Plan for 2018, at which time it’ll decide what is the best use of the funds.

Wayne Bradshaw is concerned that we need to be mindful of Hawke’s Bay’s population base in the future, and focus our assets on providing affordable, accessible programmes and facilities that match that picture.

“The future shape of our community is grey and young, Mäori and Pacific, low fixed income, high social costs and a shrinking middle. You look at that and you’ve got to think: you can’t keep doing what you’ve always done. What do we need to tweak? How do we need to change it? What do we need to do differently?” he asks.

With foresight and lateral thinking, that type of flexibility is still possible in terms of what any 2018 Stage 3 build at the RSP might look like. However, with the facility a drive away for most people, and a costly construct to maintain and develop, social connections and increased community-use are still fragile.

Colin Stone believes the RSP has not yet maximised its potential. “Unfortunately there is not the economic drive around to be able to raise however many millions it still needs.”

But trying to build facilities that can cater for more than one sport or more than one activity is fundamentally important according to Stone.

“It needs to be a destination that people come to as more amenities and facilities get built. It just takes time,” he says. “We actually ended up building a $50 million facility in one of the worst economic eras of our lifetime so that has certainly made life a lot tougher.”

“If the region can find the right projects whereby it resonates with the people we can achieve great things.”

Making connections

There’s something else at play here: connectivity at a regional and a governance level. The sports mix includes many voices: three major councils involved in ensuring social wellbeing needs are met, facilities are used and ratepayers get bang for their buck; Sport HB looking after the codes and participation; HB Tourism wanting large, high profile sports events to come here regularly and often. Whether those voices are listening to each other is another thing entirely.

Yule: “One of the RSP objectives is to get community uptake of facilities. Every time we seek to do something we make sure it’s good for the local people and that it also brings opportunities for the region. But what needs to happen is a far more joined-up process that makes it less competitive. At the moment it’s fragmented and competitive rather than collaborative.”

Hastings councillor Ru Collin has recently called for development of a strategic plan to manage parks and facilities across the region, with local authorities taking more ownership of delivery and outcomes.

Colin Stone agrees. Past plans have been criticized as putting too much onus on Sport HB and not enough on councils. In this way councils become disengaged with the plan (Opus International 2012 report). “The parts of the strategy that Sport HB had direct influence over had been relatively successful, but those areas where regional stakeholder buy-in and support was required, had not gained the same level of traction.”

Hockey turfs have inspired turf warfare

Now we have in place a Regional Sports Council consisting of council political and officer representatives as well as reps from sport and recreation organisations, the RSP and Pettigrew Green Arena. Colin Stone is the chair. The group has signed up “to achieve a more healthy, active and vibrant Hawke’s Bay community.”

“Generally speaking we have a sports sector that is probably a lot more united than it’s ever been before,” says Stone.”I think we have got a maturing of our sector; understanding their battle is not against each other. It’s ensuring kids in particular choose to be active and choose to participate in sport and active recreation as opposed to having sedentary life styles.”

“The challenge we still need to be nimble enough and have enough resources to work with codes that go into crisis and need our support,” Stone explains.

One such example is touch rugby: “We put a lot of resource in the last three years into touch in Hawke’s Bay,” says Stone. “It’s not a code targeted by Sport NZ but it’s very important to Hawke’s Bay and it’s a sport that’s really struggled for all sorts of reasons.”

Touch is an interesting story when it comes to garbled communication and a lack of collaboration. Five RSP fields were used for a touch tournament in late summer this year. It meant 400 players participating each week. Hastings District already has a number of touch fields and they are underutilised. On the 34 touch fields that can be accommodated elsewhere in the District, there was only one senior and one junior module in the last year. “All other booked modules folded due to lack of entries and participation.” (Email from Hastings District Parks and Grounds Officer.)

Lessons?

The promise of social capital benefits was the sizzle that sold the RSP sausage. Now we’ve bought the sausage but the sizzle is not yet forthcoming. The lesson: Even the most elephantine of projects can seem like a sweet deal when packaged up in a PR campaign.

Hefty chunks of cash can seem achievable at the beginning of a project, but as the project specifications, desired outcomes and economic environment change, budgets and funding can evolve too. And there will always be new projects, so focus and funds can be swept away before the job is done.

Communication across councils and with partnership agencies is fundamentally important from the outset of major projects, right through the process and onwards. Communication with the public, who at the end of the day, pays for the establishment and upkeep of such projects is also essential … but here an allegory about leopards and spots springs to mind.

Other lessons? Building facilities does not build community. Community requires joined-up thinking, connectivity and collaboration. The RSP was sold to the community with a promise of improved social capital. In the grand scheme of things it was never about sport. It was about growing participation in activities that bring people together. And on that, the verdict is still out.

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