A SHOCKING finding within the financially-strapped Cronulla Sharks Leagues Club provided the impetus for the $320 million property redevelopment set to start in a year.
Despite owning one of the state’s largest sporting complexes — 10 hectares of land including Toyota Stadium and adjacent grounds — the club’s crippling debts continued to mount.
Super League-era funds, which stopped the club going under in the mid-1990s, had come and gone. A complete audit of the working operations of the leagues club was long overdue.
‘‘What we found, however, shocked many of the directors at the time,’’ long-time Sharks director Craig Douglas, also director of Cornerstone Advisory, told the Leader.
‘‘The audit showed that only 5percent of club space provided any revenue.
‘‘Time was running out. We just had to find a way to make the land pay the club.’’
Redevelopment plans go back two decades when Peter Gow, the enigmatic millionaire father of supermodel Elle McPherson, hatched plans to modernise the Sharks club.
He and a Sharks team of directors and managers studied a number of property developments, including a magnificent Homebush Bay complex surrounded by water.
‘‘What we will get one day is something better than this,’’ Mr Gow said at the time.
His words were prophetic, but even he wouldn’t have envisaged the long path ahead.
Former leagues club employee and long-time supporter, Helen Taylor, recalled the struggles: ‘‘I remember Peter Gow virtually living at the club, moving and shaking and cutting costs everywhere.
‘‘He’d put tape and notes on on things, everywhere. You’d be lucky to see him nibble on anything more than a sandwich during the day or night.’’
Mr Gow’s team even examined plans to build a Super Sharks club by amalgamating Woolooware Golf Club with the leagues club — connected by a bridge over Captain Cook Drive — and flagged getting sport’s ‘‘biggest Shark’’, golfing star Greg Norman, involved in the project.
But all Sharks plans were scuttled by lack of development funding and failure to convince successive councils and state governments to rezone land, indeed a sensitive issue because the land included junior and senior sporting grounds and the Woolooware Bay mangroves.
State and federal governments did provide two packages which allowed a new (Andrew Ettingshausen) western grandstand, followed by a larger development, which included the southern grandstand and general upgrading of Toyota Stadium.
Mr Gow’s successor and long-time director, Barry Pierce, led a second concerted effort, which included floating another company to raise funding.
While that failed, his team managed to get the club’s car park rezoned for future commercial operations. But again, no property-development approval.
It wasn’t until a new team emerged under Damian Irvine, the former Cronulla Sharks Supporters Club head, did development plans gain impetus. Development partners Bluestone Capital Venture ditched some of the older proposals (including a hotel and aged-care centre) in favour of a supermarket and mixed retail; modern unit and apartment complexes and a family-oriented entertainment centre, taking over much of the older leagues club.
The new proposal, which meant the club would no longer need to rely on the ring of outdated gaming machines, won increasing support — especially in state government circles, where a lack of unit accommodation was a problem throughout Sydney.
But the Sharks were haemorrhaging from within and very nearly came unstuck.
With mounting debts of more than $10 million, a Sharks team sought a loan on the strength of the development gaining backing. The club was initially told yes, before news broke they would not be helped out.
‘‘We were devastated ... it was the worst day of my life,’’ Mr Irvine said.
It wasn’t until an executive’s oversight of important Sharks paperwork came to light that the club got the loan of about $2 million.
The Sharks team worked overtime with council and government, changing and modernising their development proposal and cutting 100 units off the planned 700-unit and apartment component of the development.
The Sharks encountered council opposition, but support overall, and scored a significant victory when the O’Farrell government’s Department of Planning finally recommended approval earlier this year.
The Sharks celebrated on Tuesday when the government’s independent Planning Assessment Commission reiterated the department’s initial backing of the $320 million project.
At Tuesday night’s annual general meeting, members were forced to hear ghosts of the past from a club owing almost $14 million when most just wanted to discuss the afternoon’s events - and the future projections.
The meeting also allowed three men, Damian Irvine and past presidents Peter Gow and Barry Pierce, to drink from the well together.
AT A GLANCE
Ben Fairfax, head of the development consortium Bluestone Capital Venture, said yesterday the whole project should be finished by 2020.
He envisaged it would employ 491 full-time workers and lead to 442 jobs.
- Within 90 days, Sharks debts totalling almost $14 million to be reduced to less than $4 million by a $10 million injection from development partners Bluestone Capital Venture (BCV).
- St George Bank loan interest repayments (more than $60,000 a month) immediately cut.
- Late this year a development application will be lodged for the Sharks’ new retail, medical and services precinct, with building expected to start near the end of the 2013 NRL season — with rental returns of about $1.5 million a year.
- A dedicated bus shuttle will run between Sharks and Woolooware railway station (until public transport is established).
- A new family entertainment, gym and leisure precinct to be built on the lower levels of Sharks leagues club.
- Two new playing fields at Cronulla High School (with lighting, clubhouse and parking) to be constructed by BCV to compensate for the loss of fields next to Toyota Stadium.
- DA to be lodged early next year for the first block of 600 one, two and three-bedroom units (priced between under $400,000 and $700,000) to be built towards the end of the 2013 NRL season. The Sharks will receive 10 per cent of all sales.
- A children’s playground as part of Stage 3 foreshore park upgrade.
- Upgrades to leagues club, Toyota Stadium and new club facilities.
What do you think is the best thing about the club’s redevelopment approval?