Thursday, October 20, 2011

Hearts: Community Stadium, Civil Strife

"Hearts are to work with City of Edinburgh Council to look into the feasibility of a community stadium, the football club have revealed." (BBC Sport)

And the alarm bells start ringing.

Yes, I'm a Hibs fan.

And many Hibs fans will recoil at the very suggestion - and at this stage a suggestion is all it is - that the City of Edinburgh Council should get involved in a Hearts stadium scheme.

But that's not the motivation for my concern.

There are obvious benefits to Hearts leaving Tynecastle. It would end a chapter of Scottish football history - Hibs have plenty of bad memories and a few good ones to remind us of trips across the city - but it seems clear that the old ground is now too restricted for development.

If a move was to make Hearts stronger then it would be up to the rest of us to try and match them.

It might also ease whatever financial pressures continue to swirl around Gorgie. There would have to be - in the sensible execution of local government - questions asked if the council was to play a role in soothing those maroon economic ills.

That should probably not detain us right now. I'm certainly not a Hibs fan who sees any direct benefit in financial catastrophe befalling our nearest rivals.

The very idea of a community stadium should appeal to my politics and my ideas of a healthy civic life.

For a good few years I was of the opinion that Hibs and the local authority should have worked together on the redevelopment of Easter Road in tandem with the redevelopment of Meadowbank.

I now think I was wrong. And I worry that any joint moves by Hearts and the council would be folly on a grand scale.

A football stadium can - perhaps should - be a community hub. But that doesn't mean council funds should be appropriated. I'm convinced that source of funding would fail, especially in a city of Edinburgh's size.

Maybe my views have been tainted by reading Dave Zirin's Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.

The book is a Zirin polemic and one that features the worrying American trend of sports franchise owners turning the hunt for public money to build new "ball parks" into an Olympian pursuit. (For UK reference see the grappling over the London 2012 stadium).

But he does tell us that the idea of council funds being used to lift Hearts from Gorgie and dropping them elsewhere in Edinburgh - inevitably and unimaginatively pitched as an exercise in regeneration - would likely fail.

Researchers at the University of Maryland and the University of Alberta looked at thirty years of evidence and "failed to discover a single example of a sports franchise jump-starting the local economy."

Not that Hearts would be a franchise dropped from a great height. But location would be everything.

Even more so with a "community" stadium that would necessarily have to act as a multi-sport and leisure hub for the whole city. Where would it be? What facilities would be lost elsewhere? Would people travel? Or would participants - young, old, serious, just-for-fun-ers - be lost to sport?

As an Edinburgh resident, as a council tax payer, I'd want answers to those questions.

But that wouldn't be my biggest concern.

Edinburgh has a council that is morally bankrupt, teetering on the financial brink, possibly criminally corrupt and too often indulgent of incompetence.

What confidence should anybody - Hearts, Hibs or football hater - have in that council to make the right decisions on the location or construction of a football stadium?

I'm not sure how many people in Edinburgh would accept that these councillors or their officials have either the moral authority or the basic ability to make those decisions.

We have a right to expect better. We also have a right, I'm afraid, to expect that the council won't build a stadium - for Hearts, for Hibs, for the Scottish Rugby Union - at the same time as they're handing out compulsory redundancies.

It would take a hell of a business plan - complete with every social contingency for every area of the city that might feel knock on effects - to convince me that this partnership could work.

Anything else would feel like a stab in the dark. Mr Romanov has always struck me as a man appreciative of the legend of Hannibal. White elephants are probably not his thing.

Hearts would be advised to ca' canny.

Jump into bed with just anyone and they might suddenly find that Scotland's monkeys wear many a different disguise.

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