Waiting for the doors to open

The overdue, over-budget arena project is hoped to give a much-needed boost to Hapoel Jerusalem – and the city.

New Jerusalem arena 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
New Jerusalem arena 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Mark your calendars. In April 2014, the new Jerusalem Arena will officially be inaugurated.
Well, maybe you shouldn’t set the date in stone just yet.
After all, former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert said in April 2004 that within a year there would be a new basketball arena in Israel’s capital to replace the dilapidated Malha Arena, which has served as Hapoel Jerusalem’s home since 1985.
The cornerstone for the new arena was laid in December 2005, but it wasn’t until July 2009 that the Jerusalem Municipality officially launched the project. Numerous festively announced completion dates have since come and gone, but according to newly reelected Mayor Nir Barkat, in six months’ time – a decade after Olmert’s initial promise – the new arena will be open for business.
However, Barkat also told Hapoel’s management that he hopes the team will be able to begin the 2013/14 campaign in the new arena. Needless to say, Hapoel isn’t expecting to enter its new home at all this season and would be more than glad to receive the keys in time for the start of 2014/15.
The cost of the construction, which was initially estimated at NIS 124 million, is set to end up at more than NIS 300m., with Jerusalem comptroller Malka Dror slamming the municipality for the way it is running the project in a report published in December of last year.
According to Dror’s report, the cost of the development will continue to mushroom and will be completed more than two years after the originally planned date.
Dror also believes that the current completion date of April 30, 2014, is far too optimistic.
Three months later, in March of this year, Barkat responded to the comptroller’s report, saying that the building of the arena was one of the most “significant and complicated milestones that the Jerusalem Municipality has tackled in the past decade.”
While the initial plan was to build an arena with 5,600 seats and to expand it at a later date, it was ultimately decided to erect a venue capable of holding 11,600 fans from day one, as well as serving as a commercial and conference center.
While the majority of the financing of the project will come from Mifal Hapayis – the national lottery – the Jerusalem Municipality has spent more than NIS 30m. on the arena.
In his response, Barkat promised the comptroller that he had already worked on fixing the problems she had pointed out, while crediting himself with pushing the project forward after the previous administration had failed to do so.
Barkat said that the new arena would help turn Jerusalem into a cultural center and brand the city in a way that will attract a young and dynamic population.
The arena certainly played a role in attracting Hapoel Jerusalem’s new ownership group headed by Ori Allon.
Decades of a fruitless chase of Maccabi Tel Aviv, combined with ever-changing eccentric owners such as Arkadi Gaydamak and Guma Aguiar, left many Hapoel fans disillusioned, resulting in half-empty stands at many of the team’s games last season.
Hapoel hasn’t managed to win a title since lifting the State Cup in 2008, but its future has looked a lot brighter since Allon stepped into the fray. The 32-year-old entrepreneur assembled a star-studded group, which included New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire, advertising bigwig Eyal Chomski and American sports agent Arn Tellem, to purchase a 90 percent stake of the club following the disappearance of Aguiar at sea.
Allon has no illusions about making a profit from the club, but he believes that with the help of the new arena, a lot more can be done to strengthen Hapoel’s financial situation.
“We need to set up a stable foundation that will last for years,” he told The Jerusalem Post after taking over the club.
“We need to see how we can build a team that will succeed in Israel and in Europe in the next five years. How we can harness the new arena and attract long-term sponsors. And how we make the most of the new media. We want to be run properly and have a balanced budget,” he said.
“The club can create nice amounts of money; and with the new arena and with success, it will be able to create even more,” he added. “Besides, we have announced that we will invest at least NIS 15m. over the next three years.”
The constant delays and uncertainty regarding the completion of the arena certainly complicate Allon’s long-term plans for the club, but he clearly sees the team’s new home as an integral part of upgrading Hapoel.
Allon will have to be patient until he can realize his dreams, with the construction of the new arena often seeming as if it were almost cursed. In July 2012, a construction worker fell to his death in the complex. Four months later, a crane collapsed on one of the stands – fortunately, no one was hurt in that incident.
There have been countless setbacks of every possible sort; but even if April 2014 proves to be unrealistic, the arena is set to open sooner rather than later.
It remains to be seen if Barkat’s belief that the arena will have a positive effect on the city will indeed be realized.
“This will allow us to bring national and international sporting events to Jerusalem,” Barkat promised when he visited the site earlier this year.
“Some 25 nights a year there will be a sporting event here, and there will be cultural events on more than 100 nights. This will make a massive sporting contribution to the city of Jerusalem, as well as providing financial development.”
There is no doubt that Hapoel Jerusalem will be the biggest beneficiary from the arena when it is ultimately opened.
It may be long overdue and cost much more than anticipated, but the arena will finally give the city of Jerusalem an indoor sporting venue it can be proud of, while allowing Hapoel to dream of a triumphant future not previously possible.