THE Newcastle Knights hope to know within weeks if a proposed rugby league centre of excellence will proceed, after receiving a guarantee from the Wests Group to contribute at least $10 million towards its construction.
The massive commitment from Wests, however, does not guarantee that the licensed-club juggernaut will take control of Newcastle’s embattled NRL franchise.
Negotiations between Wests officials and the NRL are ongoing, and the Newcastle Herald understands that the two parties have been unable to reach agreement on a number of crucial points.
The NRL would prefer Wests to assume ownership of the Knights as soon as possible, but Wests are well aware that the annual grant awarded to NRL clubs increases from $8 million to $12.5 million on November 1. Nonetheless, Wests’ pledge to invest in the centre of excellence is seen as a statement of intent.
The NSW Government has offered dollar-for-dollar grants to NRL clubs to build centres of excellence.
It is understood there is a $40 million funding pool and that as many as six clubs have applied, and Newcastle’s bid was favourably received.
NSW Sports Minister Stuart Ayres is expected to announce the successful recipients before the end of the month.
If the Knights-Wests bid is accepted, a $20 million facility would be built using the land and grandstand at Newcastle International Paceway.
The grandstand would be converted into administration and training facilities for the Knights, and four full-sized rugby league fields would be installed.
Harness racing would relocate, possibly to a new track in or near Maitland.
The Knights will not contribute one cent towards the cost of the project, but Wests did not have the option of going it alone because the grants were available only to clubs with NRL licences.
Wests also had to make a relatively hasty decision to commit, because the government insisted there would be no extensions to last month’s application deadline.
The new facility, if approved, will be part of a major redevelopment of Broadmeadow’s District Park as a sporting precinct, and the government apparently regard the Knights as an anchor tennant.
Knights chairman Brian McGuigan was confident the club had produced a “very compelling” application to secure the grant.
“We have been very, very active in joining forces with Wests and putting to the government that this would be a great facility for Newcastle, the Knights, and also for athletes from right up into northern NSW,’’ McGuigan said.
“It’s a JV [joint venture] that’s been made in conjunction with money that is being made made available by the government for these types of facilities. I’m not at liberty to say right now how it will be funded, but should we be successful and an announcement made, at that time I think we would be happy to tell the community how it will be done.
“At the moment, we are waiting for confirmation and an announcement. But we are very keen on this facility. We think we need something like this so that we can be competitive with other teams in the NRL.”
The Herald has been told that Wests officials travelled to Sydney recently for more face-to-face negotiations with the NRL’s powers-that-be regarding a Knights buyout.
It is understood that the Wests board of directors have the constitutional authority to ratify such a decision but are leaning towards taking the proposal to their members as a show of good faith.
The Herald was unable to contact Wests chief executive Phil Gardner for comment on Friday.
The Knights have been under NRL control for more than three years, since the demise of former owner Nathan Tinkler.
Other than Wests, it appears there is no other viable option to take over, despite a community-ownership campaign from the Our Knights One Chance group.