Australian Sports Commission boss Kieren Perkins says remedial work at the AIS Arena is moving at an "epically glacial pace", revising the timeline that could end the Canberra Capitals' hopes of a homecoming.
The ACT government is set to take over operations at the arena, with Chief Minister Andrew Barr locked in ongoing talks with Perkins about the future of the AIS precinct.
They are expected to strike a deal in the coming weeks, likely before the ACT budget at the end of the month, to work together on revitalising the campus Bruce.
But it's still unclear when the arena will reopen, or if the Capitals will be able to use it for any games during the 2023-24 WNBL campaign, as construction delays put pressure on the building industry.
The $10 million refurbishment, which will mainly focus on safety improvements rather than aesthetics, was initially slated to be finished by early to mid 2024.
That was changed to the end of 2023, but the reality of the post-COVID building pressure is set to push it back into next year.
"Works on the arena reopening are occurring at the epically glacial pace that any construction seems to be going at at the moment," Perkins said at a Canberra Region Tourism Advisory forum this week.
"It's a fascinating conversation. I'm sure you've all seen the extraordinary amount of sport infrastructure that has been promised to the entire Australian landscape over the next decade ... it needs to be ready in 2032.
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"I'm not quite sure who is going to do it all. We are still working very hard, we're also engaging again with the ACT government and Venues [Canberra] to see how we can ensure, when the arena does open, that it is easily accessible.
"At this stage, 2024 will be the year, I have my fingers crossed, we all get the opportunity to enjoy that facility again with better climate control, more comfortable seats and better lighting than what we've experienced historically over the last period of time."
The Capitals have shifted their base to the National Convention Centre in recent seasons, but prefer to play marquee fixtures and finals at the bigger AIS Arena.
Super Netball club the Giants also had to prematurely end their contract to play in the capital when the arena closed because there was no other suitable venue option for professional netball in the city.
Perkins has high hopes for an improved AIS campus, but the federal government opted not to allocate any infrastructure funds to the project in the budget this year.
The fear is that if the federal government delays the AIS decisions any further, it will impact Australia's hopes of success, and athlete development, ahead of hosting the Olympic Games in Brisbane in 2032.
The arena and the stadium are separate issues, which will require a joint deal with the commission, the ACT government and the federal government.
Venues Canberra is expected to take charge of the arena's operations and bookings when it does eventually reopen.
The deal will be similar to that already in place for Canberra Stadium, with the government in charge of the day to day running via under a lease agreement for the commission-owned venue.
The arena has been closed since early 2020, shut indefinitely by the commission because of fire system safety concerns. The commission no longer considers the arena as part of its core business of producing Olympians and creating pathways for sports.
But it left Canberra without its biggest indoor sporting, exhibition, concert and function space until it became a federal election issue last year, with all parties agreeing it needed an injection of funds.
The fire system, lighting, air conditioning and some seating will be upgraded when it reopens.
Perkins is also confident about the long-term future of the AIS, with more than 5000 elite athletes attending camps for 31 different sports this year.
"With the focus on Brisbane 2032, and we've got a Commonwealth Games in Victoria in 2026, people outside of Canberra do ask the question: Is the AIS, as the federal government's marquee sports product," Perkins said.
"Is it being based in Canberra an appropriate place for that to be? Certainly from our perspective, 100 per cent yes."
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