Day At The Track

Ministry no longer interested in Racecourse

06:40 PM 12 Apr 2018 NZST
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Mike Rangi, left, and Marlborough Racing Club president Eric Bowers
Marlborough Harness Racing Club vice president Mike Rangi, left, and Marlborough Racing Club president Eric Bowers are glad the ministry has lost interest in Waterlea Racecourse.

As a cloud hangs over the future of Blenheim's colleges, a cloud has lifted over the town's racecourse, for now. 

The Ministry of Education confirmed on Thursday it had concluded talks regarding its three preferred sites for the proposed co-located colleges; Waterlea Racecourse, an Alabama Rd vineyard and a property on Battys Rd.

Marlborough Racing Club president Eric Bowers said they got an email from the ministry on Monday, saying the ministry was no longer interested in the 31-hectare racecourse.

The same day, the community learnt the decision to co-locate Marlborough Boys' College and Girls' College was under review, with alternative options of refurbishing the existing schools or building a co-educational school back on the table.

Bowers said the email made no difference to him, as the racecourse was never for sale.

Public consultation about future options for the colleges started as Marlborough Girls' College has several old and ...
Public consultation about future options for the colleges started as Marlborough Girls' College has several old and leaky classrooms.
 

"They said they accepted our decision and they would look at alternative sites. But that didn't change anything for us, because we told them some months ago we weren't selling," Bowers said.

The ministry was looking for a greenfield site of about 15ha for the $63m colleges, to be built side-by-side by 2021, as announced three years ago.

It approached the joint owners of Blenheim's only racecourse, Marlborough Racing Club and Marlborough Harness Racing Club, more than two years ago, hoping to purchase about half the site.

The Waterlea Racecourse, in Blenheim, is nearly 100-years-old.
The Waterlea Racecourse, in Blenheim, is nearly 100-years-old.
 

But the clubs refused, saying in November 2016 they needed the space for galloping and thoroughbred racing.

Stables, offices, jockeys' rooms and a grandstand would all have to be rebuilt or moved, if the colleges were built on the site, estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.

Rebuilding stables, offices, jockeys' rooms and a grandstand would have cost tens of millions of dollars.
Rebuilding stables, offices, jockeys' rooms and a grandstand would have cost tens of millions of dollars.
 

The ministry identified Alabama Rd as its preferred site a month later, and then confirmed in August 2017 it was discussing the racecourse with NZ Racing.

The discussion was to ensure "we fully understand all factors regarding the Waterlea Racecourse's current position", and better understand the organisational structure and operation of the racing codes and clubs, she said.

Bowers said the discussions with NZ Racing were pointless.

The Marlborough Harness Racing Club jointly owns Waterlea Racecourse with the Marlborough Racing Club.
The Marlborough Harness Racing Club jointly owns Waterlea Racecourse with the Marlborough Racing Club.
 

"We were under a confidentiality agreement at the time. But the reality is, NZ Racing doesn't own the racecourse."

Marlborough families made many sacrifices over the years to keep the 98-year-old racecourse going, Bowers said.

"We've had the racecourse nearly 100 years now, it's one of the oldest in New Zealand. Many people in Marlborough donated thousands and thousands of hours to develop that course there.

Marlborough Boys College principal Wayne Hegarty, left, and Marlborough Girls' College board chairman Bernie Rowe are ...
Marlborough Boys College principal Wayne Hegarty, left, and Marlborough Girls' College board chairman Bernie Rowe are waiting to hear if the co-location project will go ahead.
 

"During the Depression years, the clubs went broke and they had to sell the course. But after World War II one family actually mortgaged their homes to buy it back, and the clubs paid them off over some years through hard work at the races. So it's an asset we felt shouldn't just be sold off to the Government."

And if racing did "disappear in time", Bowers hoped the property would stay owned by the community, he said.

"But that won't be in the near future. The racing industry is very strong here."

A 24ha vineyard on Alabama Rd was the ministry's "preferred option" in December 2016.
A 24ha vineyard on Alabama Rd was the ministry's "preferred option" in December 2016.
 

He felt the ministry should refurbish the colleges at their current sites, he said.

"It would be a heck of a lot cheaper than building two new ones. But they are the experts."

Shannon said the decision was made to review the business case for co-location in late February, due to increasing costs and difficulties finding the right site.

Marlborough College was co-educational until 1962, when it changed its name to Marlborough Boys' College.
Marlborough College was co-educational until 1962, when it changed its name to Marlborough Boys' College.
 

"We then completed the strategic planning, development and implementation processes for the review," Shannon said.

"Next we contacted both college principals in March to talk them through the next steps. They were then free to share that information with the school community," she said.

Marlborough Boys' College principal Wayne Hegarty​ said he waited until he had formal correspondence from the ministry before he informed students and parents.

"They contacted us by phone and said there was going to be a review, so I asked them to put something on paper ... the first thing we saw on paper was the press release on Monday.

"They said all options were open, but we wanted to be able to dig down to what that meant, and that's what we were waiting for."

Shannon confirmed the ministry's negotiations with the owners of their top three sites had concluded.

"We did enter talks with the owners of the Waterlea and Alabama Road sites but those discussions did not progress to a point where the ministry could be confident of a successful outcome," Shannon said.

"We only pursue those that meet our criteria, present a preferred long-term addition to the school network and the best value for the Crown. Battys Road was included in our initial long-list but was not progressed to the next stage." 

The owner of the Alabama Rd site, Montford Corporation director Haysley MacDonald, said the ministry never actually made an offer on his 24-ha site in east Blenheim.

"We've never had negotiations as far as pricing goes. They've come and looked at it, they've done testing, but that's all that's happened," MacDonald said.

MacDonald said he felt "totally messed around", but would still consider an offer if the ministry made one in the future.

"Everything is negotiable. But they've never made that leap forward. There's no for sale sign on the gate, put it that way. And I've got a business to run, and that vineyard is an important part of it, growing grapes."

Father-of-five MacDonald said he thought the co-location project should go ahead.

"I went to Marlborough Boys' College myself, and it was a good school to go to, but the infrastructure was pretty tired and that was 20-odd years ago.

"I'm all for a new school. I don't care where, but the current sites are already too small, and we do have a growing population to think of."

By Jennifer Eder

Reprinted with permission of The Marlborough Express

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