The ACT government has accused the federal government of allowing the AIS Arena to deteriorate after Canberra's largest sport, concert and exhibition venue was closed indefinitely on Monday.
The Canberra Times revealed Sport Australia had shut its doors, sparking fears COVID-19 had fast-tracked plans to decommission the 39-year-old venue. Users have been told existing bookings have been cancelled, future bookings won't be accepted and there is no timeline for a reopening.
Coronavirus physical-distancing restrictions have led to indoor venues around Australia being virtually unused since March, but it's understood the pandemic is not the only reason behind the closure.
It's understood a recent facility audit prompted the decision, Sport Australia confirming the venue needed "infrastructure work" done for an upgrade. The venue could open its doors again next year, but officials would not answer questions about the future.
Sport Australia, a federal government agency, oversees events and operations at the Arena. The closure will force touring artists to bypass the capital because there is no longer a big enough venue for indoor concerts.
It's believed promoters have been informed of the Sport Australia decision, forcing tentative bookings for artists including Guy Sebastian and Delta Goodrem to be scrapped even if coronavirus restrictions subside and crowds are able to return to events.
The Wiggles and bands including Human Nature have been regular Arena users over the years given there is no other appropriate venue available. Concert promoters have been contacted for comment.
ACT Sport Minister Yvette Berry said she had continually raised the state of the AIS Arena and its uncertain future with federal counterpart Richard Colbeck.
Concerns have been raised about the AIS being "nursed through" over the years without significant investment to make it an attractive spot for sports and events.
"It's disappointing but inevitable to see this occurring after the Commonwealth government has let this important facility become run down," Berry said.
"It's rare that I haven't taken the opportunity when meeting with the federal Minister for Sport to raise the state of the AIS Arena and the federal government's plans for its future. Following this decision I will again be asking the federal Minister for Sport for certainty that this facility will continue to be available to the Canberra community."
Women's National Basketball League champions the Canberra Capitals will be without their major venue, the NBL won't be able to play games in the city and Super Netball is now without an arena capable of hosting the GWS Giants as per the club's deal with the ACT government.
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Almost 4000 fans watched an NBL game in Canberra last year and the Giants have attracted sell-out crowds to their fixtures.
The Arena closure is the latest development in the ongoing uncertainty about the future of the AIS campus at Bruce, which includes plans to downsize and cut in half the 65 hectare centre of excellence.
Sport Australia works with Visit Canberra to try to attract acts or sporting events to the capital. Sport Australia also leases Canberra Stadium to the ACT government for ACT Brumbies, Canberra Raiders and other major sporting events.
Sport Australia bosses have submitted a business case to the federal government detailing plans for reviving the AIS campus, which has shifted from its initial purpose as an athlete hub to be a sports science leader.
The running and upkeep of an arena or stadium are not considered to be a part of Sport Australia's "core business purpose", which has led to speculation the AIS Arena and Canberra Stadium, as well as other assets, could be sold to the ACT government.
But the latest shutdown has shocked stakeholders, who were planning to book the Arena for different events for the end of the year.
First opened in 1981, the 39-year-old venue is in need of major changes to make it a state of the art arena, but sources have told The Canberra Times they fear officials used the audit as an excuse to shut it indefinitely.
Sport Australia refused to say if the Arena would reopen when coronavirus restrictions ease and did not detail the infrastructure work required to improve the venue.
"The AIS Arena has been closed since mid-March due to COVID-19 and, due to required infrastructure works, we do not anticipate it re-opening in 2020," a Sport Australia spokesperson said.
"To minimise impact on customers, we are intending to cancel existing 2020 bookings and are not taking any new bookings.
"The Australian Sports Commission continues to engage with the Australian government about the future of AIS facilities."
Sport Australia has been considering radical options to transform the Arena for several years, but was forced to scrap a "Volleydome" proposal four years ago.
Women's basketball champions the Capitals play all finals matches and major games during the regular season at the 5000-capacity Arena instead of the smaller National Convention Centre.
But availability of the Convention Centre depends on what other functions and exhibitions have been booked into the 1800-seat space. The Capitals have shifted regular-season games to the AIS Arena in recent years because they were unable to book the Convention Centre.
Giants Netball were also expected to play the final game of their three-year deal in Canberra this season, but the closure of the Arena means there is no appropriate venue to fulfill commitments.
This decision has come unexpectedly and so the ACT Government will now need to work with users of the facility, including the Canberra Capitals and Giants, on alternatives.
"This decision has come unexpectedly and so the ACT Government will now need to work with users of the facility, including the Canberra Capitals and Giants, on alternatives," Berry said.
Sebastian and Goodrem were planning to wow Canberra fans towards the end of the year, but have now removed the capital from their tour dates.