Ringside seats

Who wouldn’t welcome the multi-million pound investment of a new arena in a previously deprived part of a city? The owners of Manchester’s existing arena for one.

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Birmingham’s got two. London’s got two and is getting a third. Glasgow’s got three, although only one is large. No one should really be surprised that Manchester would want a second indoor sports and concerts venue.

What’s that, you say? It already has the country’s largest? True up to a point. But with the Manchester Arena looking every one of its 25 years, and rarely able to sell to capacity, opportunity has been scented.

At an upcoming planning committee meeting, perhaps as early as next month, Manchester City Council will consider the £350 million proposal by US company Oak View Group (OVG) for a 23,500-capacity venue at Eastlands, close to Manchester City’s Etihad stadium.

“This new market would help reverse the drain of northern leisure spend to London.”

Plans were lodged in March, while those with competing interests have objected long and loud. Although the proposal is strongly fancied by property insiders to be green-lit, its scale likely means waiting until the planning committee is working in full – during the Covid-19 lockdown, a scaled-down team of three has been considering applications.

OVG’s case is that Manchester deserves a step up in class from the now-dated Manchester Arena, which opened in 1995. It promises something not just better, but bigger. Due to its configuration, Manchester Arena usually operates at 16,000 rather than its nominal 21,000 capacity. OVG’s proposal is for a 20,000-space arena, which due to a flexible design would extend to 23,500 for certain events.

A study by PwC for OVG reports that in 2014-2018 fewer than 10 per cent of Manchester Arena’s events received more than 15,000 attendees. But over that period, a Mintel UK Concerts and Festivals report says the UK’s live music ticketing market grew 6.7 per cent. OVG’s claim is that Manchester, a city that has enjoyed a 39 per cent increase in its working-age population between 2000 and 2018, is missing out on a growing market.

The existing arena had for years ranked second only to London’s O2 in UK attendance numbers, but Glasgow’s 2013-built SSE Hydro arena has charged up the field despite only having a capacity of 13,600. Over the period studied it tallied up average annual ticket sales of 980,000 compared with Manchester’s 950,000, and bagged prime events such as BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

OVG intends to build its “next-generation” offer on an 11-acre site to the north of the Etihad stadium, currently used for overspill parking. Populous, designer of Tottenham Hotspur’s much-praised new stadium, is the architect.

The US company says the project will bring more than 500 full-time equivalent jobs to a part of Manchester that remains one of the most deprived areas in the UK. The venue will effectively use the transport infrastructure in place to get people to and from City games – clashes will be avoided where possible.

OVG’s chief operating officer Mark Donnelly tells Big Issue North: “Manchester is falling behind other major cities in the UK for live events and, without a new arena, it’s likely that the city will permanently lose its historic role as the biggest market for live entertainment outside of London.

“The existing arena is limited both in terms of capacity and in its ability to attract all the best events to Manchester. The provision of OVG’s new arena, which will exceed the capacity and quality of the O2, would allow the north to secure more events, including those which currently only happen in London. This new market would help reverse the current drain of northern leisure spend to London, in line with the national priority to rebalance the UK economy.”

Not unsurprisingly, ASM Global, owner of the Manchester Arena, is at the head of a small army of commercial objectors, which also includes Printworks owner DTZ Investors, restaurant group Living Ventures, Manchester Arndale and Corn Exchange owner Aviva Investors.

Charles River Associates, tasked with making the case for the opposition, argues that there is “no market need” for a second venue, there are “significant flaws” in OVG’s evidence, and that the creation of 181,000 sq ft of food and beverage and other retail included in the OVG plan would threaten an annual visitor spend by gig-goers of £114 million in the city centre.

An ASM statement says: “We firmly believe that this planning application presents a very real threat to not only our venue and transformative redevelopment plans, but to our neighbouring hotels, bars, restaurants and stores, at what is an already fragile time.

“Independent analysis clearly demonstrates there is no demand for a second major venue in Manchester. To introduce another would risk running the other out of business, taking with it the visitors and spend it positively contributes to surrounding businesses. Analysis demonstrates the astounding nature of the market projections included within the planning application – projections which rely on cherry-picked data and ignore historical growth.”

Research for ASM by consultancy Grant Thornton says that while 80 per cent of gig attendees at the Arena spend money in the city centre, half of those say they wouldn’t head into the centre at all if visiting a fringe location. Last year, ASM vice-president John Sharkey told property website Place North West “only one venue will survive, and if it’s not ours then the city will lose 1.2 million people coming through it and could turn to tumbleweed”. He called the plans “absolutely crazy”.

Crazy or not, they’ve stirred ASM into action. In March, the operator revealed plans for an overhaul that would take capacity to 24,000. Features include the creation of additional concourse levels to improve circulation, a dedicated level for VIP areas, and new food and drink outlets on the event floor.

It’s easy to see why many regard the Eastlands proposal as a shoo-in. It will add allure and rental income to the Etihad campus developed by the council’s cherished partner Abu Dhabi United Group (it’s also worth pointing out here that Silver Lake, a key investor in OVG, also invested with ADUG and the City Football Group in 2019). And the council has long desired Eastlands to be more than just sport, going back to the super-casino bid of 2007. The city has been accused of only caring about shiny city centre towers, and surely would trumpet this project as proof it takes action elsewhere.

What does this mean for locals, and does anyone care? In relative terms, seemingly not. Where other major proposals have attracted highly mobilised, grassroots opposition, notably the opposition to Peel’s plans for a Ryder Cup-standard golf course in Bolton, and the Gary Neville-fronted St Michael’s tower scheme in central Manchester, that’s not happened here.

A two-stage public consultation, flagged up with brochures and community postcard deliveries and accompanied by online resources, was held in late 2019 – box-ticking maybe, but done properly. The plans seem to neither excite nor antagonise. Only 109 people attended across the initial drop-in sessions.

Much of OVG’s planning submission focuses on traffic, public transport, job opportunities for locals and enhanced walking and cycling routes to the centre. The jobs highlighted above include 47 full-time and around 1,000 part-time roles, while the transport issues should be tackled by projects under the Bee Network banner, as Chris Boardman’s walking and cycling routes are introduced through the city.

Each side has employed gamesmanship. In a package of five quotes from the opposing coalition, three referred to protecting a business community battling Covid-19 – in reality, it will be three years before anything is built. Starkey’s talk of tumbleweed in the city centre feels hyperbolic.

Equally, it’s hard to argue that a “markets supporting two arenas” argument should combine Leeds and Sheffield, as OVG does, but not consider the Liverpool and Manchester – roughly equivalent in distance – together.

Donnelly, however, insists there’s room for both. “A new state-of-the-art venue in Manchester would increase overall event numbers and attendances in the city. We know two arenas in Manchester can exist side by side, with even the most conservative growth scenario showing a new arena would result in 750,000 extra ticket sales, bringing huge benefits to East Manchester and the city centre in associated visitor spend and jobs.”

Clearly, those parts of the city centre that thrive on the back of Arena events would suffer if its programme declined. But other areas could be given a lift, such as the £1 billion plans around the Mayfield depot, the Portugal Street East area close to Piccadilly station, and the already-burgeoning Ancoats. In reality, the historic “city centre” has been expanding in all directions for years – ASM may need to start running just to stay still.

Main image: graphic of the proposed new arena

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