If the AFL’s proposal to send North Melbourne to the Gold Coast had succeeded, the Kangaroos would be ‘celebrating’ a decade in their new home, with the club due to complete its relocation in 2010.
However, as history shows, North Melbourne has remained where it belongs, in North Melbourne.
10 years after his club was due to play as Gold Coast for the first time, former North Melbourne chief executive Eugene Arocca joined The Inner Sanctum to talk about how the club was saved in a four-part series called ‘Saving North Melbourne’.
Part Three: Rebuilding Our Home
When Arocca arrived at North Melbourne, the club had $7.5 million committed for a new headquarters at Arden Street.
There was $2.5 million from each of the AFL, state government and Melbourne City Council.
“We needed to find another $7-8 million. There was a plan of the new facility and it was costed out at more than $16 million,” he said.
“I remember going to the architect, a chap called Gray Barton. He was really good bloke and a North Melbourne member who was doing it more for love than money, and I said to him that we’re going to have to review this $16 million costing as there was no way we were going to get the other $9 million.
“He and I then reviewed a lot of the elements of the design to find savings.
“For example, the original design was for the building to run around the boundary in a curved manner.
“We ditched that concept and opted for a simple and straightforward rectangular building.
“We made other changes to reduce cost and in short, we saved a lot of money by keeping it simple.
“We gave it an old fashioned brickwork look, so it has the industrial, working-class type appearance.
“We trimmed a lot; we fixed a lot and we changed a lot. We also worked very hard to appease the Council to ensure the plans would be approved.
“Ultimately, we were able to reduce the cost of the building down to about $13.5 million.
“I also knew that the $7.5 million we had secured in funding wasn’t going to cut it and there was no way known that the banks would lend us the rest.
“So we lobbied the state government and we managed to secure another $3.5 million from them.
“The real clincher was the very generous donation of $1 million from Peter Scanlon.
“To be honest, without that last million from Peter, we would’ve been in trouble.
“To this day, I do not believe we would have built Arden Street had it not been for Peter.
“His contribution took our funding up to $12 million and that was the point when I thought we could finally build something that had been planned for more than 20 years.”
The Global Financial Crisis then hit.
However, North Melbourne was able to use it to its advantage through the stressed market.
“There was a drop in steel prices, and we were also able to negotiate a good discount with the builders,” Arocca said.
“It was a combination of good luck and hard work, which meant we started from a $16 million building which would’ve been impossible to build and ended up with a $13.5 million building where we had managed to fund more than $12 million ourselves.”
However, the big challenge didn’t come from outside the club, but inside the board.
“The board became very nervous about starting a build just as the GFC
hit,” Arocca said.
“I remember in December 2009, we had a board meeting where they seriously considered not proceeding and urged me to hold off on the construction.
“They rightly felt that we could not proceed with such a significant project until we had some confidence that we could withstand the GFC.
“I managed to convince them to set up a sub committee and agreed that we would meet just before New Year’s Day to review the decision.
“I remember that on or about December 28, Cam Vale, my CFO and I held a meeting with three other directors and we somehow convinced them to let us prepare the site for a February 1, 2010 start date for the construction.
“I argued strongly and very passionately that we needed to put the boarding up around the building site to prove to everyone, from government to members, that we were going to build no matter what.
“The Board was still very nervous, and I promised them that if we got to the end of January and could not proceed due to the GFC, we would simply pull down the building site fences and try and fight on for another day.
“However, I knew deep down that if we didn’t proceed with the building by the start of 2010, we would probably lose the additional government funding we had secured.
“The fact is that it was tied to a State election and us delivering that building in 2010 was very important to the government.
“I had nightmares over the possibility of having to go to the government and ask for more time. I was also worried that we would lose momentum.
“In the end, we had the building site fencing put up over the New Year’s break and hoped that the world would start to show some signs of economic recovery from the GFC.
“The fact is that economically things did not really improve, but they did not get worse and so, our gamble paid off.”
On February 1, 2010, the trucks and machinery had turned up at Arden Street, and work had started on the new building.
Nine months later, the club moved into its new facility.
“I remember watching the builders demolish the old social club from my new office and not for one moment did I feel anything but relief because we were finally removing one of the reasons we were so often ridiculed by other clubs,” Arocca said.
“When many other industries were struggling and the economy was tanking, here was North Melbourne creating something new.
“Supporters would often tell me the line that if there was a nuclear war, only two things would survive – cockroaches and the North Melbourne Football Club.
“Well, here we were, in the middle of a global crisis, building a new facility.
“I thought it sent a very strong message to the AFL that in the middle of the GFC, we were building a brand new facility and we delivered it on budget, on time.
“On November 1, 2010, the day we moved in to Arden Street, was a red letter day for the club.
“I could see everyone from the staff to the players with enormous pride and a sense of achievement.”
“A group of players from the leadership team, comprising Drew Petrie, Brent Harvey, Daniel Pratt, Corey Jones and Adam Simpson were so grateful that they took me out for a dinner.
“They even bought me a bottle of a wine as a show of their appreciation.
“They knew more than most what it meant to the club, as they’d been in the old building and they thought they’d never see the new one.
“I consider that night to be of the highlights of my life.”
Securing the sponsors
With its future in Victoria up in the air, North’s sponsors begin to worry.
Its jumper sponsor was pulling back, and attracting others was proving difficult.
Establishing themselves back in the area was vital.
“Mazda was the first real test for us and one we needed to convince,” Arocca said.
“They had reduced their support to only having their name on front of the jumper for half of our matches.
“They had indicated that if we moved to the Gold Coast, they were unlikely to extend the sponsorship.
“They made it clear that Victoria was their primary market.
“When I started at North, I sat down with their marketing manager and explained to him that we were not only staying in Melbourne, but that we would work so hard that by the end of 12 months, we would look to have them on the back and front of our jumper for all matches.
“We had Vodafone on the other side of the jumper and when their deal was up at the end of 2008, we sat down with Mazda and showed them what we had achieved in our first year; growth in membership, about to start building our new home and a strategic plan in place.
“We asked them to become a full sponsor and lo and behold, they bought the vision.
“They signed up and I remember the headline in the Herald Sun was ‘no gloom, all zoom’ and Mazda had committed for three years for the front and back of the jumper.
“When you get your major sponsor doing that, then getting other sponsors to follow was certainly easier.
“It made it so much easier talking to the sponsors we already had on board by saying ‘look at Mazda, they’re backing us, look at our new building, you’re going to want to be a part of this’.
“It also made it easier when you’re in a new building and you are able to meet your prospective new sponsors in a fantastic new facility, which at the time was considered one of the best.
“For us to have done what we did, a true inner-suburban footy club, was pretty important.
“That made it easier for my commercial and sponsorship people to go out and sell the vision of the future.
“I think that was always a thing that hamstrung North. Up to that point we always seemed to have this stop-start future with lingering concerns about our sustainability.
“Even today, there are still some doubters out there.
“I don’t accept that. We are an historic club. We’ve withstood the very worst of times and come out the other side.”