The company that operates the newly rebranded AO Arena has called on the city council to reject proposals for a second large arena in Manchester and “protect” the existing venue and city centre.
Speaking to Place North West, Tom Lynch, business development director of ASM Global, said: “We hope the [planning] committee will look at the overwhelming lack of a market case for two arenas of this size in Manchester, particularly with one being out of town.
“The existing arena is one of the most successful in the world. It is in the heart of the city and it is a huge institution in concerts worldwide and we need to protect its future.”
Plans for a £350m rival arena, which would be built in Eastlands close to Manchester City FC’s Etihad Stadium, have been put forward by US-based stadium developer Oak View Group and recommended for approval by the council’s planning officers.
OVG claims there is sufficient demand in the live entertainment sector for Manchester to support a second venue, based on the findings of a report it commissioned by Amion Consulting and the Audience Agency, which predicted that there would be an additional 2.5 million annual arena visits by 2035 – representing threefold growth from now.
However, Lynch cited separate analyses by two different consultancies – Charles River Associates, and Grant Thornton and Oxford Economics – that he said depicted growth forecasts significantly lower than OVG’s predictions – somewhere in the order of 5% growth between now and 2035.
He told Place North West: “You don’t need to be an analyst or an economist to know that [OVG’s projection] is highly unusual and very unrealistic, and our concern is that the council’s decision may be taken on the basis of flawed analysis.”
As well as the future of its own arena, which has been closed since March due to Covid-19 restrictions, ASM Global also expressed concerns about the health of the city centre in general, adding that an “out-of-town” venue would take footfall away from the city centre.
“OVG claims that people will still eat and drink in the city centre, but it is clear that very few people are going to arrive at Piccadilly Station, come into the city centre – which is coming away from Eastlands Arena – and then go to a show there,” he said.
“It is just not how people interact with the leisure experience. They don’t walk away from their destination.”
Investment trust Secure Income REIT bought the AO Arena from investor Mansford Estates for £436m in 2018, and ASM Global has 25 years left on its lease.
The arena had been without a sponsor since 2015 when its previous sponsor mobile phone retailer Phones4u went bust. On the same day the AO sponsorship deal was signed, ASM Global lodged plans for the first phase of its planned £100m redevelopment of the venue, intended to increase its capacity to 24,000 people.
“The plans represent our ambition for the next stage of the journey,” Lynch said. “We are very proud to have been part of the Manchester music and entertainment scene for the last 25 years, and we want to be here for another 25 years providing world class live entertainment experiences.”
However, ASM’s plans, designed by architect HOK, would not be viable if OVG’s are approved, he claimed.
“If another arena was built in Manchester, our current business, between 130 –150 events a year, is going to be divided between the two venues which will have adverse consequences on our ability to invest in the redevelopment but also the ability for the arena to operate in the long term due to our rental commitments,” Lynch said.
A consultation on the redevelopment proposals, which include the overhaul of the Hunts Bank entrance opposite Cheetham’s School of Music, among other features garnered 6,800 responses, 94% of which were in favour of the proposals, according to ASM.
“People want to see a safe and secure venue in the heart of the city centre and that is what we aim to provide,” Lynch added.
ASM has also questioned the transport strategy drawn up by OVG and says people will rely heavily on cars to get there due to its location outside the city centre and a relative lack of public transport infrastructure in the immediate vicinity, whereas the existing arena has “full integration with public transport and is walkable from both train stations”.
The plans for OVG’s Eastlands arena are to be debated by Manchester City Council on Thursday. The company argues that its proposed 23,500-capacity arena, designed by Populous architects, would “support the growth of East Manchester as a thriving community and world-leading sporting and leisure destination”.
In deciding whether to approve the OVG arena plans, the council will have to weigh up the potential of a second arena to negatively impact a 25-year-old Manchester institution, against the promise of additional investment from OVG in a different part of the city.