Dashiel Lawrence of “North & West Melbourne News” looks at North Melbourne’s Arden St redevelopment.
It has been described as a world first; a sporting facility where players will directly engage with the community — an AFL facility free of Poker machines and liquor licenses, a place that will promote education and foster social cohesion. North Melbourne Football Club’s long awaited Arden Street complex, 14 years after it was first mooted, is on schedule and expected to be open by the end of 2009.
In AFL terms, it’s been a remarkable turn of events. Only 18 months ago with its future in doubt, tilted between Arden Street and the Gold Coast, members, supporters and the North Melbourne community took an emotional and defiant last stand to keep the Kangaroos alive and in Victoria. “Keep north south” and “thrive not just survive” became two of the war cries on that fated afternoon at Dallas Brooks Hall in December 2007.
With relocation to Queensland voted down by the club’s board, the first of those war cries became a formality. The part about thriving not just surviving would be more problematic.
Yet the club has wasted no time. In early 2008, a new board headed by anti-relocation campaigner, James Brayshaw and freshly appointed chief executive Eugene Arocca, fast tracked a redevelopment of an ageing Arden Street headquarters.
A feasibility study and community consultation process followed before a revolutionary plan for the club’s new facility was tabled. The new $16 million Arden Street complex would house the administrative quarters, player facilities and most significantly, a space called, ‘The Life and Learning Centre’.
Midway into last year, the Australian Multicultural Foundation was announced as a partner in the Centre. Several million dollars of local, state and federal funding was stumped up, a private benefactor emerged with a generous outlay and by late February construction began.
Soon after the bulldozers arrived at Arden Street, a leading educational and community consultant was appointed to further develop the club’s strategic plan for the Centre.
What is now emerging is an establishment that could be the way forward for professional sporting clubs in Australia.
Together with the Victorian Education Department, the club will develop programs and classes, within the state curriculum structure, that will bring up to 10,000 school students through the doors in its initial year of operation. The traditional AFL model of coaching clinics will be replaced by player lead workshops and classes on leadership, healthy living, multicultural and Indigenous issues.
“Getting the kids engaged and active has been at the forefront of our thinking. It’s not enough for them to come here, have a tour and bounce a ball around,” says John Murphy, the club’s Public and Community Relations Officer.
According to Eugene Arocca, the model is based on English Premier League Club, Blackburn Rovers’ Community Trust. Providing relevant, real life learning opportunities for young people has been successful for the English club and the local community there. Arocca believes North Melbourne Football Club’s facility could go even further:
“We’ll have our players actively involved in the implementing of these programs. Taking classes and working with school students,” he says.
According to John Murphy, the players, particularly the leadership group, have welcomed the opportunity.
“Everyone has said ‘I’ll get involved’. It’s been incredibly encouraging,” he says.
It’s a situation he is enthused by, “For them this is an excellent opportunity to do something positive, to genuinely put something back into the community. Also with the view to developing skills that will last with them beyond footy,” he says.
The club and centre will also enhance educational opportunities in the area by housing a program of after-hours homework classes for local young people. In particular, the program will aim at tapping into the surrounding areas migrant and refugee communities. Adult learning groups will have access to English language lessons and sessions on health and well-being. The classes will be supported through qualified tutors, teaching aides and volunteers and existing services in the North Melbourne area.
According to John Murphy, “We’re here to stay. We wanted to create something sustainable and lasting for the North Melbourne community.”
A facility without gaming machines and liquor licenses has created new opportunities for community life in Melbourne’s inner north. The club’s meeting rooms, theatrette and indoor sports stadium will be available to local community groups according to Arocca. “When the club is not using those areas they will be there for groups to use free of charge.”
With a full-time Centre manager still to be appointed, funding to be finalised, partnerships with schools to be formed and a strategic plan to be established, there is still much to be done at Arden Street. The events of 2009 haven’t helped the Club’s board and administration efforts to re-establish the club either. Disappointing on-field results, continued media speculation about the club’s finances and the embarrassing release of the now infamous rubber chicken video has frustrated efforts to improve the brand of the North Melbourne Football Club.
At the time of its public release, Eugene Arocca moved quickly to condemn the video. An episode he describes as a “stupid, childish prank”.
However he defends the other charges against the club.
“It is blatantly unfair for those who say we don’t have a business model or plan for the future. They are disrespectful to the club and to the board. They ignore our growth in membership, match attendance and merchandise sales,” he says.
As for the club’s plans for the future; “If anyone wants proof just go down to Arden Street.” he says.
Arocca is confident the club has the backing of the AFL and its high profile chief executive Andrew Demetriou, especially on the subject of the new Arden Street facility.
“I think Andrew does support it. Our relationship with him and the AFL generally couldn’t be stronger,” he says.
How the club will fund the ongoing cost of The Life and Learning Centre remains to be seen. Arocca predicts its cost to be up to $400,000 per annum in its initial stages. He predicts naming rights, other sponsorship and ongoing sources of government funding to comfortably fund the centre’s programs and operations in the long term.
“Come December we’ll have the funding, the programs will be in place, the facility should be complete and ready to open within the start of the new year,” he says.
When that day comes the club’s symbolic re-establishment in North Melbourne will be complete. Their project of welding AFL football, community and education could in time become the envy and model of other sporting clubs in Australia — and perhaps the Kangaroos will thrive again, not just survive.
If they do, to make a well-worn football analogy, they will have pulled off a miraculous come-from-behind-victory.