IT was the $10 million commitment that was supposed to underpin the Wests Group’s takeover of the Newcastle Knights.
But just days before Wests assume full ownership of the city’s NRL franchise, plans to build a proposed rugby league centre of excellence remain in a state of flux.
Under the deal struck with the NRL, which has owned the Knights since June, 2014, Wests agreed to invest $10 million in a centre of excellence, to be built on the current Newcastle International Paceway trotting track at Broadmeadow. It was hoped Wests’ contribution would be matched on a dollar-for-dollar basis by the state government, to create a state-of-the-art $20 million facility.
But the government grant has not yet been confirmed, and there now appears some doubt whether it will be.
If it was to fall through, Wests would effectively take control of the Knights for a song, as they are under no obligation to fund the centre of excellence on their own.
Wests resisted NRL requests to pay a “franchise fee” to acquire the Knights, and also declined to pay out any liabilities incurred while the governing body bankrolled the club.
So far, Wests’ only expense has been in running costs dating back to earlier this year.
As of Wednesday, the transitional joint-venture between Wests and the NRL will end, and Wests will officially own the Knights outright.
It is unlikely at that point that either party will know the fate of the proposed centre of excellence.
Despite the uncertainty, Wests Group CEO Phil Gardner told the Herald: “There’s no going back. I can assure you of that. We're looking forward to the challenge.”
While Wests would potentially save $10 million if the centre of excellence does not proceed, Gardiner said that would be “a tragedy for the city”.
“We think this is really important for the city,” Gardner said. “It’s really important for the stadium as well. It would be great for the community.
“We’re really excited about it because of what it can deliver. If we can get it across the line, we’ll get a fantastic outcome.”
Architects have drawn up a variety of plans for the centre of excellence and Wests had been hoping that construction would begin some time next year.
But Gardner said “governments do some crazy things at times” and the proposal to make available $40 million to NRL clubs for centres of excellence was linked to the Sydney stadia wrangle.
“The longer it goes, the more nervous I become,” Gardner said.
“I would have thought we'd have an announcement by now. Why it's taking so long, I’m not sure. If I was a betting man, which I am, I would think we would get it.
“I can't see how they can possibly countenance anything else. My sense is that it still should happen.”
If it doesn’t, and Wests secure the Knights without having to produce their unofficial $10 million “down payment”, Gardner felt the NRL were still getting a good deal.
“I think the NRL are very, very happy with us,” he said.
“I don't think there is any doubt about that. I think they believe the Knights are finally in the right hands.”