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Sport Facility Planning – Focusing on the Function and Not Just the Pictures

Posted By Aaron Lake and Dale Wood  
16:00 PM

Getting to the opening day of a new sporting facility can often be long and at times difficult. We’re sure it has contributed to our grey hair count. Having gone through the process multiple times, it has highlighted how critical the upfront planning work is – it’s something we’re a little obsessed about (please don’t tell our friends).

As we know, to deliver new or upgraded infrastructure, generally requires funding from a range of sources (largely government) and this can be competitive and at times opportunistic. Those that have gone through the process, you will understand.

So many times we have witnessed sporting organisations seeking to competitively position themselves for a potential funding opportunity that rush straight to getting artist impressions and plans drawn up. 

Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing against architects (in fact Aaron comes from a family of them). There is a definite need to get plans drawn up to help inform the planning and to sell the vision down the track, but we believe a proper planning process should not start with nice pictures.

Organisations need to establish a clear and cogent vision and strategy, undertake the due diligence, and build an evidence base, as part of determining infrastructure requirements.  To do this there is a need to answer some key questions which should be addressed as part of initial investigations (often a feasibility study). Questions such as:

  • What is the problem trying to be addressed?
  • Where does an infrastructure solution fit within the organisational strategy?
  • What are the facility gaps and what is needed to deliver key programs and activities?
  • How big will it be and what functionality will it have?
  • Are there any elements that are more important than others?
  • Do we have stakeholder buy in?
  • What partnership opportunities exist and what’s that mean for the infrastructure solution?
  • How much will it cost to deliver and how much can we afford to contribute?
  • How will the development project be managed?
  • How will the facility be managed?
  • How much will it cost to operate, and can we afford it (regardless of our role in management)?
  • What are the likely benefits achieved from delivering the infrastructure?
  • What is the pitch we want to bring to potential funders?

The delivery of infrastructure can be a big investment up front and an even bigger investment overtime to operate and maintain, so understanding what you are signing up to is critical for ongoing sustainability of the organisation. The long, worn road of sporting infrastructure development is littered with the regret of those that didn’t factor in all the costs and responsibilities.

Through our work we have had the privilege of being exposed to a wide range of projects across the country. We’re hearing of more and more organisations that are scrambling to deal with infrastructure issues on the run.  The lack of upfront planning is leading to poor decision making that in some cases has required solutions to be retrofitted and / or not meeting needs, and is placing financial pressure on the broader organisation. 

There appear to be several reasons exacerbating the issue:

  • Lack of investment in planning – We get it, completing the required level of analysis can take time, requires financial investment, and may seem arduous, however our counsel is:
  • Don’t wait until a funding opportunity presents itself - if you have a need, start now!
  • The financial investment is minimal when compared to the capital and ongoing costs that you could be exposed to – it will pay for itself in the long run
  • The decision-making and planning processes for developing infrastructure are tried and tested
  • Government is now often seeking ‘shovel’ ready projects – This requirement results in short submission timeframes and organisations rushing to meet funding program conditions, resulting in short term decisions being taken that can lead to issues down the track. Infrastructure is a ten to twenty year decision, much longer than the time to cut a ribbon with novelty scissors
  • Predicting political appeal – Organisations try and predict political appeal and make decisions that are not necessarily aligned to the needs of the organisation. The opportunity isn’t worth the potential damage and loss of goodwill for the organisation if it is born of poor planning  

By way of example in recent times we have been exposed to cases where sporting organisations have not completed the planning work and are now dealing with the fallout, resulting in them trying to determine:

  • If what it has promised to funding bodies will actually meet the needs of the sport
  • If it has adequate funding to fulfil its obligations, and where not, potentially resulting in them having to hand funding back – there are no winners in that situation
  • How to meet significant ongoing operational and maintenance costs that had not been forecast, placing financial pressure on the broader organisation – nothing upsets government funding partners more than the request for more money (annually) to keep the facility open!

We’re not trying to be all doom and gloom or suggesting that organisations shouldn’t embark on transformational projects as  there are many cases where excellent work is being done and great outcomes achieved. This is just a call to arms for the industry to reflect on how it approaches these projects to ensure we continue to have sustainable outcomes. If recent events have taught us anything it is to make sure that organisations have the capacity to meet capital and operational costs to ensure its infrastructure is not an ongoing burden impacting on other service delivery.

We accept doing the suggested planning work is not a silver bullet, and by no means is it a guarantee for securing funding or avoiding any operational challenges.  It will, however, help ensure that the organisation is better positioned to:  

  • Know what it needs and the resulting benefits
  • Know what it can bargain with, when engaging with funding bodies
  • Know the likely capital and operational cost envelope

Completing the heavy lifting up front will position organisations to prepare an informed and clearly articulated proposal to present to funding bodies, which from our experience is what they want.

Be prepared, do the work and when a funding opportunity presents itself you will be in a much better position to strike.  Afterall, infrastructure shouldn’t be one those things where you get the money and work the rest out later.

If this resonates, let us know of your experiences or challenges.


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