Stadium is losing race to stay open

Woodbourn Athletics Arena.
Woodbourn Athletics Arena.

THE race to make Sheffield’s spending cuts may be a couple of months from the finishing line, but hopes of Don Valley Stadium surviving beyond September appeared to be receding this week.

Financial arguments were being stacked up in favour of the stadium being demolished and the city’s home of athletics returning to the centre at nearby Woodbourn Road, which is currently unused.

Crucially, councillors were being advised that if Don Valley is kept open with an annual subsidy of £700,000, it would be at the expense of up to five community sports and leisure centres.

Even so, doubts were being cast this week over the future of at least one, Stocksbridge Leisure Centre, as part of a reorganisation of facilities in the north of the city.

Yet there is no doubting the damage to Sheffield’s reputation as a City of Sport if the council’s Labour group decides to run with the option of closing Don Valley.

Along with the Arena, which faces a difficult year as it faces competition from Leeds, and Ponds Forge, the stadium was one of the centrepieces of the 1991 World Student Games and a symbol of a leisure orientated regeneration of the east end and the city as a whole.

More recently, it became synonymous with the success of Olympic gold medal winner Jessica Ennis, who caught the athletics bug there as a youngster and continues to train there.

The possibility of losing such a high profile venue was being greeted with dismay within the local athletics community. Ennis’s coach, Tony Minichiello, said: “It’s shocking that they are talking about demolishing it, and it would make things difficult for us. The sad thing is that it destroys any kind of legacy.”

It was being emphasised this week that no political decisions have been taken yet.

Former Sheffield MP and Sports Minister Richard Caborn was briefing Lord Coe - no stranger to Sheffield athletics - who is committed to ensuring the country derives a legacy from the London Olympic Games.

Mr Caborn said Sheffield had a “fantastic” reputation for sport, partly as a result of working closely with both city universities. Hallam was spending £6m on upgrading its Bawtry Road ground for football and rugby, he pointed out,

“There would be reputational damage to Sheffield (if Don Valley closes) because we have built an economy on sport. We have to see if there are alternative uses so we can keep the stadium open.”

But even if a solution is drawn up, it is highly unlikely that it will include a running track. And the strategy of clearing the site to make way for possible uses such as houses - hundreds could be built - along with offices and shops is expected to be on a provisional list of money saving measures to be announced by the council in the next week or so. The authority is aiming to save £50m this year.

Some business leaders in the east end believe the council would be taking the correct course of action.

David Slater, of the Attercliffe Business Connection, said it would be “a very brave and bold decision”.

The stadium had served its purpose, he said. “It’s of its time, and it was built for spectators rather than participants. At Woodbourn Road, the emphasis would be on participants. What we need is a quality regional athletics track and that could be Woodbourn Road. Things have moved on since 1991. There are now so many stadia up and down the country.”

Mike Corden, who chairs the City of Sheffield Athletics Club, said the first job was to try to persuade the council to keep Don Valley open.

At the same time, it was sensible to have a contingency plan in the event that the council did not agree.

“We don’t want it to close, but Woodbourn Road is clearly the alternative and we want to ensure it is a viable option.”

If there was a positive side, he said, the footprint of the track and field facilities was the same as at Don Valley, and the aim would be to see it could be used by everybody from youngsters to international athletes wanting somewhere to train.

But any chance of Sheffield hosting more international events would go with Don Valley.

Meanwhile, the exercise in assessing the value of Sheffield’s most high profile athletics stadium could also claim Stocksbridge Leisure Centre.

The council has calculated it pays a relatively high cost - a £3 subsidy per person - for a relatively low number of visits.

It is believed to be working on plans for a new pool in the north of the city as part of its major reassessment of leisure facilities, although any closure threat affecting Stocksbridge is bound to be controversial.