Since 2000, Westpac Stadium has been the home ground of the Hurricanes and the Vodafone Wellington Lions. The new stadium was the culmination of well over a decade’s worth of investigations and planning after Athletic Park “The Home of New Zealand Rugby” became too expensive to maintain.
Rising rentals and maintenance bills meant that finding an alternative home for Wellington Rugby was vital. Rent alone had skyrocketed in 1991 to $98,000 a year (from its previous $15,000) and large maintenance bills were becoming more and more frequent.
In 1994, five days before the Springboks were due to play the All Blacks at the park, a solid piece of concrete fell from the park’s Millard Stand and destroyed a seat. There were anxious days while the engineers combed the stand from top to bottom, and finally declared that a “one-off” accident.
The test did go on, but the accident called for decisive action on the future of Athletic Park. As far back as 1935, Wellington’s famous Evening Post newspaper had stories about the search for a new rugby ground in Wellington. So it wasn’t a new thing when WRU management committees of the 1980s started looking around for possible ground areas.
The search was fruitless, so Wellington Rugby made the decision to stay put, with plans to develop the Park, including the addition of Wellington Rugby offices and entertainment areas.
The 1987 stock market crash stopped any development plans in their tracks, and it wasn’t until 1991 that the search for a new ground was rekindled.
The Chief Executive at the time, Surrey Kent, was charged with redeveloping Athletic Park or finding a new home. There was a sense of urgency at this time, and never more so when Wellington Rugby’s engineers cam back with a report to say that the Millard Stand was deteriorating so fast it would need a minimum $2 million in repairs within 10 years.
Chairman at the time, David Gray said, “… for that $2 million all we were going to get was the Millard Stand as it was, no fresh facilities, nothing new.”
Rugby was evolving, and now unions were focusing on attracting a new kind of audience to watch the games. The audience group identified (described as “theatregoer” in an NZRU report) focused on the entertainment side of the rugby experience.
Athletic Park still attracted the avid traditionalist, but it wasn’t attracting replacement patrons.
In the late 1980s, Graham Atkin and Eddie Tonks enquired about the availability of spare Railways land in the shunting yards on the waterfront and were told there was none available. (By the way, in 1994, the government made this area available).
Really, the deciding factor came from Wellington’s business sector - they said they would support (buy) corporate boxes in a multi-purpose stadium, but not in one that wasn’t a year-round facility.
Gray says he and Surrey Kent were called to a meeting in Brierleys’ boardroom, attended by a group of Wellington identities, including Paul Collins, Brian Johnson, David Whale and Zuk Marinkovich.
“These guys said, wonderful, we’ll support you and buy a box, but only if you have rugby and cricket at the same stadium. We are not, they said, going to spread our money between two venues. It was a fairly strong message. They had gone away and talked to the corporates, and the message was it wouldn’t work unless there was a single stadium,” Gray said.
There was some pressure to go to the Basin Reserve, but in 1994 Gray received a phone call from Wellington City Mayor Fran Wilde to say a new opportunity had come up. That’s when the railway yards site be made available.
“My stance was that we had to get out of Athletic Park. We had no choice. We talked about the railway yards, and we talked a lot (at union level) about leaving the park. In the end it was a unanimous vote to leave the park.”
Gray says, though, that there were compelling reasons.
“We were broke, we had to spend the $2 million on the park, we were cutting costs and cutting trips, we were bottom end of the NPC, we weren’t getting the gate-takings – and there was even a threat of relegation if things got worse.”
In August 1994 Wilde called in Sir Wilson Whineray to assess the best choice for the move, and he settled on the railways site.
It all took off from there. In 1995 the Wellington City Council approved a $15 million loan for base funding, and a month later the ratepayers got behind it in a Regional Council poll (75%). Westpac bought the naming rights in December 1995, and things were moving.
The first resource consent on a 41,000-seat plan failed, but plans were modified (including the smaller size of 34,500) and the consent was won. Fletchers won the contract, and construction started on 12 March 1998.
Wellington rugby had seen some difficult times, but commitment and hard work on establishing the Hurricanes brand and Super 12 team started to net financial gains. From that point on, Wellington Rugby’s the money worries eased. There’s little doubt professional rugby saved Wellington, and the arrival of the stadium was a huge boost to that.
|1986||Plans drawn for redevelopment of Athletic Park north stand area, including WRU offices, entertainment facilities etc.|
|1987||Plans dropped because of sharemarket crash and its effect.|
|1991||Wellington Rugby prepares fuller plans to redevelop Athletic Park.|
|1993||Focus shifts onto Basin Reserve under pressure from council, etc.|
|September 1993||Porirua supporters push their Aotea site as an alternative.|
|February 1994||A whole new ball game. The Government makes the Railways site available, planning focus moves to this and a petition to support the site is circulated.|
|June 1994||A feasibility study puts cost of mooted 41,000-seat stadium at $70 million.|
|August 1994||Sir Wilson Whineray is called in to assess all possibilities and opts for the Railways site ahead of Aotea and Fraser Park.|
|July 1995||Wellington City Council agrees to $15 million loan for base funding.|
|August 1995||Strong support (75%) across region for ratepayer funding, so Regional Council gives conditional approval for $25 million.|
|December 1995||Naming rights sold to Westpac, corporate box sales start, Lottery Board awards $4 million grant.|
||First resource consent application fails in face of resident opposition. Planning for more expensive model starts, and these are unveiled in November, including a long concrete walkway from the railway station.|
|March 1997||Resource consent gained.|
|August 1997||Contract awarded to Fletchers.|
|October 1997||Membership sales start.|
|March 1998||Tapu on ground lifted, and construction starts.|
|November 1998||First roof section put in place.|