The future of major sport and entertainment events in Wollongong has been assured, with a State Government commitment yesterday to build a new $28.9 million western grandstand at WIN Stadium within three years.
The decision guarantees the long-term presence of the St George Illawarra Dragons NRL side in the city and boosts plans to one day establish an A-League football team within the region.
The two-tiered grandstand will include 6170 covered seats, increasing the ground's total capacity by 3758 to 23,150.
The announcement by Premier Nathan Rees followed agreement by State Cabinet on Tuesday to go ahead with the plan after a decade of lobbying from sporting, business and community leaders, including Illawarra MPs Noreen Hay and David Campbell.
Mr Rees said the Federal Government would be approached to pay half the cost of the new grandstand - but insisted the project would go ahead with or without national funds.
"A great city merits a great stadium," Mr Rees said.
"This is an upgrade the people of the Illawarra deserve and that the people of the Illawarra will get.
"Many years ago now the Government helped fund the Northern Grandstand and now it's time to finish the job, replacing the 50-year-old western grandstand and putting a brand-new state-of-the-art facility in."
The new grandstand is a more modest version of an initial $47 million proposal which included a hotel and walkway to the Steelers Club. It was rejected by the Treasury.
Included are four commercial areas facing Harbour St that will be put up for lease, two function areas and media facilities.
The western change room will be relocated to the southern grandstand, where minor refurbishments will occur, including the upgrade of corporate boxes.
About 640 jobs, mainly in construction, would be created by the works, the Government said.
It is understood the Wollongong Sportsground Trust is working to a faster two-year construction timetable, with the demolition of the western grandstand targeted for the second half of 2010.
Chairman Chris Christodoulou said it was intended that all scheduled games at the stadium would not be affected.
He said the upgrade meant WIN Stadium could better attract national and international concerts and sporting events - including high-level rugby, rugby league and football games.
The process to finalise the design and start the tender process would now begin, with a final completion date "really dependent on the length of the procurement process".
Mr Rees said the new stadium was not dependent on the Federal Government paying $14 million.
"We are asking them for a contribution, but if they can't come to the party, we will go it alone," he said.
Wollongong MP Ms Hay said the community deserved the new stadium after years of pressure aimed at government decision makers.
"There's been a lot of lobbying and arm twisting and pleading and begging and threatening ... of course it's all been in good faith - amicable but firm," she said.
Ms Hay indicated people should not think funding for the stadium ruled out future injections in other areas.
"No one believes that hospitals and roads are more important than I do," she said.
"I am a strong supporter of getting whatever we can for Wollongong Hospital, for example.
"By the same token, though, we have a sporting facility here ... with a stand that is archaic.
"The people of the entire Illawarra are entitled to better."