Tuesday, 7 June 2011

West Ham Field of Dreams

Shopping centre giant Westfield could contribute around £20m to help West Ham United transform the Olympic Stadium into a football ground, according to reports surfacing today. The Construction Enquirer understands that Westfield has held preliminary discussions with the club about sponsoring the stadium when West Ham move in after the 2012 Games. It is thought naming rights could be worth around £20m and would contribute to the £100m cost of converting the Olympic stadium into a football ground and increasing the chances of retractable seating being installed at the venue.

If the reports are true, then fortune certainly does favour the bold, writes Mike Law. The co-owners of West Ham United FC, David Gold and David Sullivan, will see their club move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium – freeing up 3.2 hectares of prime real estate for potential redevelopment - without having to put their hands in their pockets. The successful West Ham FC/Newham Council bid for the stadium entailed a proposed £95 million refurbishment of the stadium. £35 million to be stumped up from the Olympic Park Legacy Company’s conversion pot (public money), £40 million from the infamous Newham Council 'loan' (more public money), leaving Gold and Sullivan to find a further £20 million.

West Ham’s relegation is reported to have cost the club revenue somewhere in the region of £90 million: money it could have had, had the club managed to stay in the premiership. The club’s owners have stated that the relegation may well cost them £40million of their own cash to keep the club on an even keel. So it must be of great relief to them, thinks Law, that Westfield has generously offered to lend them the money to cover their share in the Stadium Legacy Partnership LLP.

Westfield, of course, has already joined forces with the club as professional advisor for the planning, design and construction elements of its successful Olympic bid. Indeed, the two institutions have an obvious common interest in making the heart of the Olympic Park work "in legacy" (as they say). This includes building a bit of community good work into their respective operations, in keeping with the long-term objective of revving up the economy of East London where unemployment is high and ingrained. It is speculated that the ground would be known as the Westfield Stadium. Westfield has already built a £1.5bn shopping complex in Stratford and the stadium sponsorship would be a natural extension of its presence in the East End.

That said, the deal is apparently dependent on West Ham getting promotion back to the Premier League following their relegation this season. One source is quoted as saying: "There have been fairly detailed talks between both sides but it all hinges on West Ham getting promoted. The sponsorship value drops through the floor if they are still in the Championship so Westfield will wait to see what happens next season before confirming anything."

Having investigated the rumours, the Guardian's sports and media correspondent Owen Gibson was confident enough to tweet that "the naming rights story is nonsense..." but he did concede the company had tendered for the conversion work which would include installing hospitality boxes. So perhaps the two parties will eventually warm to a stadium bond over corporate canapes, suggests Dave Hill in his London Blog. The world's largest retail property group and the Hammers would make a snug fit. Westfield. West Ham. Westfield Food Hall Ham Sandwich. West Ham Field of Dreams.

The Hammers' stadium deal is, of course, a partnership with Newham Council, and has not be without its controversy. Back in January a BBC London investigation into the Olympic stadium loan to the club uncovered aspects of the council's approach that led one financial auditor to warn of a "danger of abuse" of the system. Crucial documents explaining the bid in detail had been withheld from councillors until shortly before the vote. There had been no explanation as to whether the council would be liable for the debt if relegation-threatened West Ham defaulted. A "significant number" of councillors had reservations - but refused to speak openly because they were allegedly "afraid" of missing out on lucrative positions. Finally, Mayor of Newham Sir Robin Wales declared dozens of gifts from West Ham (35 in the last three years), with critics saying his impartiality had been compromised. By contrast, the leader of Islington Council declares an average of three gifts a year from Arsenal. The leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council - home to Chelsea, QPR and Fulham - declared four such gifts since 2008. In both 2008 and 2009, almost half of the total gifts Sir Robin declared were from West Ham. They mostly consisted of "hospitality in the chairman' s suite" and "lunch and drinks". The mayor is also a season ticket-holder at Upton Park.

In counter balance, argues Hill, the agreement guarantees benefits for residents, with sports participation fostered through a "legacy trust", local schools able to use the stadium for sports days and a community athletics track being provided for local athletics clubs. In Februaury, Newham Town Hall Chief executive Kim Bromley-Derry vowed: "Our bid has always been more than about football – we’re in it to gain the maximum benefit for not just our residents, but those across East London." It is a view endorsed by English cricket legend Graham Gooch and local health chiefs.

Leyton-born Gooch, a Hammers fan, has described the joint bid as a 'natural fit'. He said: "It’s important that everyone benefits from the stadium. Newham’s approach will ensure that residents can share the experience of athletes competing in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games." Gooch’s club, Essex, has outlined plans to use the stadium for matches, as well as establishing a cricket academy in Newham. He added: "East London has a rich history in generating top-class cricketers – as evidenced by Newham-born Ravi Bopara. We want that to continue, which is why we’re excited about getting more youngsters from the area into the sport and seeing them develop at county and possibly country level."

Newham NHS chief executive Melanie Walker says the joint bid by West Ham United and Newham Council can "make a significant contribution to achieving better health and well-being in Newham". Schools in the area will be able to hold their sports days at the stadium. A community athletics track will be open all year round and will help to increase sporting participation not just in Newham, but across East London. Bromley-Derry added: "Our involvement in this bid is to secure access to the stadium for residents of all ages. It will give youngsters a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will provide them with lasting inspirational memories that will stay with them forever. Increasing participation in sports as well as cementing community use is an important part of generating a meaningful legacy from the Games." The community track will allow Newham Athletics Network and Newham and Essex Beagles Running Club to move to the Olympic Park. He continued: "It’s important for people to remember that this is not just about football. Newham Council exists solely to benefit our residents and our bid represents a solution that has the community at its heart."

As for Westfield, they've been doing their bit by pledging that "at least 2,000" of the possible 8,500 retail jobs in their £1.4 billion shoppers' paradise will be "for the local unemployed" from day one. They've set up a permanent "retail academy" on their Stratford site (they've another in Nottingham) run by the training experts Seetec with the aim of building a "skills base", especially among younger people. Of the 25,000 construction jobs created during the build of Westfield Stratford City, approximately 10% of the workforce was to be comprised of Newham residents. There is also £150 million invested by Westfield into public transport, and a further £200 million infrastructure works project.

Those who pine for a lost East End manufacturing past might groan romantically at the notion of Big Shopping - the biggest in Europe at 1.9million sq ft of retail and leisure - as an engine of "convergence" between the mostly hard-up Olympic boroughs and the wealthier bits of the capital. But Westfield's arrival on this side of the metropolis - it's due to open soon after the start of the next football season - does vindicate the view of legacy planners that London's development tide is turning in that direction, states Hill. Sir Robin Wales angers some with his desire to move the borough more upmarket, but if he hadn't been lobbying for a portion of those retail jobs, he wouldn't have been doing his own.

As for a closer Westfield-West Ham hitch-up, time will tell. The Hammers board have already made it clear that they intend to sell naming rights, with vice-chairman Karren Brady telling City A.M. last year: "If we did move we would most certainly be looking for a stadium sponsor." West Ham and Westfield have so far declined to comment but club insiders reiterated talk of a deal was premature while some formalities of taking over the ground remained incomplete. The Upton Park outfit hope to move into the stadium, which they intend to convert from 80,000 to 60,000 seats, in time for the 2013-14 season. If nothing else, notes Hill, the football club can hardly lose from being so close to a facility so large it should be able to sell you anything - including perhaps, a few decent new players.

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