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Wednesday 21 April 2010
A stadium fit for the Dons

From time to time we publish articles that appear in the programme which contain news that hasn't been published on this site. The following article updates fans on where we are with our project to find a new ground. It appeared in the Tamworth programme.

Erik Samuelson explains, in a somewhat simplified way, what is involved building a new stadium and assesses our progress in the various stages we need to go through.

We already have a stadium and it is capable of sustaining us in the Football League, but we will need a better, more modern stadium in due course. The main stages in the process of achieving this are as follows:

Define what we want from a stadium and where we want it. Find a suitable site. Assess the planning and property market issues. Get the support of local politicians and council officers. Carry out some master planning and financial analysis. Find the finances. Identify a developer to work with. Seek planning permission. Start and complete building. Manage the stadium successfully to generate income that supports on-field goals.

What we want – and where we want it

We are assuming that we want a 10,000 capacity stadium which can be expanded to, say, twice that capacity if needed. We know enough to be able to prepare drawings showing the size of the stadium’s footprint and some of the facilities we might want to include.

As for “where”, Merton are very keen for us to return to our spiritual home, while Kingston have also said that they would like us to commit to being in the borough permanently. Whatever we do needs the support of the fanbase, which is why we are about to carry out a survey of your views. In the meantime, our working assumption is that the majority of fans will expect us to explore every potentially viable opportunity in Merton first – and that is what we are doing. If the survey shows our assumption to be wrong, we’ll need to think again.

Find a suitable site

We have identified some excellent sites, but we aren’t saying where they are as that might drive up the price of the land.

One massive hurdle is that if the owner of a suitable site won’t sell, there is little we can do. It is still too early to talk in detail to landowners, so one major uncertainty is that we don’t know whether we can get the land. Obviously this is a significant issue and one we must resolve soon.

Assess the planning issues

There are some sites where you can’t realistically expect to build a stadium. For example, it is much harder to get permission to build on Metropolitan Open Land (the inner-city equivalent of the green belt) than on land which is not MOL.

There is another issue, and it relates to enabling development, which is the way many stadiums have been funded in recent years. Basically, when a site is bought and developed, it becomes worth a lot more than the purchase price. Often, part of the deal is that some of the surplus thus generated is used to build a stadium, an idea that has proved very attractive to football clubs and supermarket operators in recent years, because a supermarket generates the highest profit from the development and that can effectively fund the stadium.

However, there are now very strict planning rules about where supermarkets can be built, which basically limit construction to town centres – but that usually isn’t where you’d be able to build a stadium. There are further major difficulties, as you also have to consider traffic issues and prove that there is demand for a supermarket. This means that any enabling development on our preferred sites will probably fall short of the ideal solution to funding the entire cost of building a stadium.

Get the support

Whatever you want to do on this scale, you really do need political commitment and leadership from local representatives and council officers. As mentioned above, there is no doubt that this support is there, and we need to build on it. It will be a critical factor in us succeeding in our objective of building a new stadium, and we couldn't have asked for better support.

Carry out master planning

What this means is that the architects draw what we could reasonably expect to build on each site. This takes into account what planning rules will probably allow, and what interested parties, such as the council, the developer and local residents, might want from the project.

Once a credible master plan for a stadium and the associated development has been established, property experts can evaluate the likely value of the developed site, using knowledge of current rents relating to, for example, shops, offices, light industrial buildings, hotel, leisure and residential property.

We’ve done this for the sites we’re interested in, and the calculations show that the profit from any enabling development falls a long way short of being enough to pay for a stadium. That isn’t to say we should despair – these calculations are being carried out at a time when property values are low. As the property market picks up, the shortfall will reduce, and we can also look at other opportunities to narrow the margin.

So in this area we are a long way short of a solution, but we are working on it, and I'm confident we will narrow the gap.

Find the finances

If councils have no spare cash for building a new stadium, and an enabling development won’t provide all the necessary funding, where will the money come from? Once we’ve established the best possible result from an enabling development we will know what the shortfall will be. We could meet it by borrowing against the value of the stadium, or something similar to the share issue we did seven years ago (but on a much, much larger scale).

This is a massive area to tackle, and we are some distance from seeing how to achieve our objectives.

Identify a developer

We need to bring a developer into the project at the right time. All the advice we’ve had is that we mustn’t do this too soon or we’ll run the risk of losing control of the project. And, like any major business deal, getting the right partner is essential.

If all goes well, we might be looking for such a partner at the end of this year – but the “if” is a big one. Lots can go wrong, and we are still in the early very stages of the project.

Seek permissions

Whatever the planning advice, we will still need formal permission for a stadium, and the granting of it will be a rigorous and potentially lengthy process. If the decision is referred to central government, this could add a year to the timetable – and that’s not taking into account proposed changes in planning laws that the Conservatives would make if they got into power.

If all goes well, we might be making a planning application sometime late in 2011 – but note the “if” again.

Start and complete the building

We are probably talking about a couple of years from receiving planning permission to having a stadium ready to occupy in its first phase.

The recent invitation by the FA for us to be a “public training” venue for the England 2018 World Cup bid has got us all talking. If the England bid is successful, an absolute date of June 2018 might help to focus the minds of all. Consider how the 2012 Olympics are bringing forward stadium and other projects in East London at great speed. So could the FA’s 2018 offer provide the “call to arms” to help us achieve our own stadium in time?

Manage the stadium for success

The stadium must provide a great experience for supporters on matchdays. But we will also need to operate and manage it as a successful facility 365 days a year so that we maximise our income and provide an asset that offers something special to the Merton community. That means working out now what income we can expect to generate from the stadium – there’s no point building a stadium we can’t afford to run. We have started this work.

And finally .

When I spoke about progress on a stadium at a recent Special General Meeting, I said that we were in the best position we’ve ever been in, and I think that is still true. Unfortunately, I think that some people got the impression that it was already sorted, bar the fine detail. We have made major progress, but as I’ve tried to illustrate in a balanced and realistic way, there are some massive issues to resolve. In some cases, we can’t yet see the solutions.

Personally, I feel is that this is not only the best position we’ve ever been in, but the best we are likely to be in for many years. Everybody who is involved in the project team is committed to making it work, and we will do our utmost to deliver. It is likely that progress will often not be very visible and reporting on it will be limited – that’s the nature of the beast – so please be understanding and patient. But I do believe that we will get there.