Cairns gets new $176m entertainment centre while Newcastle waits

The entrance to Newcastle Entertainment Centre. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
The entrance to Newcastle Entertainment Centre. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The Queensland Government committed in June to spending $176 million over the next two years to expand and remodel Cairns Convention Centre.

The 1996 building, designed by leading Australian firm COX Architecture, already has a 5000-seat arena for sports and concerts, a second 2300-seat theatre, two other halls, nine meeting rooms, six conference rooms, a media room, state-of-the art audio-visual facilities and 31,000 square metres of exhibition space.

The industry’s international body, the AIPC, voted it the world’s best congress centre in 2004 and 2014. 

The building hosted the prestigious G20 international economic summit in 2014 and staged 14 games in this year’s Commonwealth Games basketball tournament.

The home of Cairns’ National Basketball League team had a $12 million refurbishment in 2005 and a $6.3 million upgrade in 2011.

The proposed $176 million upgrade to Cairns Convention Centre.

The proposed $176 million upgrade to Cairns Convention Centre.

Now the Queensland government is spending another $176 million to completely overhaul it and add another 3000 square metres of exhibition space. 

Two thousand kilometres down the coast in Newcastle, a city with well over twice the population of Cairns has a glorified tin shed to host major entertainment and sporting events.

It is not on the record who designed Newcastle Entertainment Centre, but it’s a safe bet it wasn’t Philip Cox. 

The arena, built 26 years ago for $12 million, suffered the embarrassment last weekend of an abandoned NBL trial match involving former NBA star Andrew Bogut.

The venue’s manager, AEG Ogden, has launched an investigation after moisture left the temporary court unsafe for play.

The fiasco, which disappointed 3000 fans and delivered a black eye to the Hunter’s sporting reputation, has had one silver lining, drawing attention to the need for a new multi-purpose arena worthy of a city which the state government increasingly refers to as a metropolitan centre.

The proposed $176 million upgrade to Cairns Convention Centre.

The proposed $176 million upgrade to Cairns Convention Centre.

All eyes are now turned to the government’s Hunter Sports and Entertainment Centre Precinct plan for Broadmeadow, a draft of which was released by Premier Gladys Berejiklian 14 months ago.

The final concept plan, which Venues NSW intends to deliver to the government some time before the March state election, will include a new sports, entertainment and convention centre.

Venues NSW chief executive officer Paul Doorn told the Newcastle Herald this week that the precinct plan would include a “modern” arena with between 8000 and 12,000 seats.

“The final size included in the detailed concept plan and business case is dependent on an analysis of the types of events that would be attracted to an updated facility,” Mr Doorn said in a written statement.

Sydney Kings players check the surface of the Newcastle Entertainment Centre court on Saturday night. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Sydney Kings players check the surface of the Newcastle Entertainment Centre court on Saturday night. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

It is understood a replacement arena could cost between $120 million and $200 million and be funded in part by land sales for residential and commercial redevelopment.

Parliamentary secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald said the “disappointing” cancellation of the NBL game had demonstrated the need to renew the Broadmeadow precinct and its infrastructure.

“The site and buildings have grown without a clear plan over decades. Much of the infrastructure is dated,” he said. 

“The NSW Liberal Government recognises the need to revitalise Broadmeadow. We are determined to under-promise and over-deliver. That means a comprehensive plan with widespread consultation.”

The NEC, which has a capacity of 7500, will host a netball international between Australia and England on September 19 and will stage concerts by international stars Cher and Keith Urban in the next six months.

A sell-out crowd for a national league netball game at Newcastle Entertainment Centre in 2016.

A sell-out crowd for a national league netball game at Newcastle Entertainment Centre in 2016.

Newcastle Tourism Industry Group general manager Gus Maher said a new venue was long overdue.

“Newcastle is now of a size and at a level of maturity for both visitors and residents alike that we deserve a world-class facility that can host world-class acts and events,” Mr Maher said. 

He said Newcastle “sorely” needed a venue for conventions “whether it be closer to the city and on the water or as part of the proposed Broadmeadow redevelopment”.

“The prevailing wisdom is that they don’t make money of themselves; they make money for everything around them in the community.

“Having a venue is most critical, and, if it can be in the city in a really pretty location adjacent to our existing major hotels, that will make us a lot more attractive as opposed to people having to get on buses every morning to go to and from the convention centre.

The G20 summit at Cairns Convention Centre in 2014.

The G20 summit at Cairns Convention Centre in 2014.

“We are two hours from Australia’s biggest city, so if we had a significant convention centre, we would be in a really good place.”

Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said the city’s major sports and entertainment assets needed renewing and replacing to attract national and international events.

“Expressions of interest for the Broadmeadow precinct closed all the way back in November last year, while in May this year City of Newcastle made a budget submission to the NSW government identifying the need to speed up the delivery of the precinct,” she said.

Planning for the large redevelopment area has been a complicated affair, aiming to integrate with the strategy behind the government’s Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan and take in transport planning, including the possibility of extending the light rail line to Broadmeadow.

Another factor in the protracted planning process has been the future of the Newcastle Show and Newcastle Harness Racing Club, both of which occupy a substantial part of the redevelopment site.

The Newcastle Show board has refused to abandon the showground and has secured a meeting with Sports Minister Stuart Ayres this month to discuss the issue.

The Newcastle Herald has been told harness racing officials are holding out for a commitment of up to $20 million to pay for relocation costs if the trots club agrees to give up its 2027 lease on the track.

The draft concept plan showed the track could be replaced by a playing field and an indoor “consolidated sports facility”.

The Newcastle Knights confirmed in May that they would build a $20 million centre of excellence next to the stadium’s southern grandstand with money from owner Wests Group and the state government.

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