Search This Blog

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Secrecy and apparent amateurism, lack of guts at the city hall of Almere and especially the erratic ambivalence of the Dutch national skaters’ union KNSB, apparently sealed the fate of the Almere Icedôme

In my first article about the future Dutch speedskating venue, Almere Icedôme, I have spoken about an insider, called ‘John’ (not his real name). 
John has been closely connected to the process concerning the development of the Almere Icedôme and he is an acquaintance of mine.

Yesterday, after publishing my latest article with respect to the Almere Icedôme (in Dutch), I had the opportunity to speak with John again; especially about the question what had gone wrong, during the preliminary stage of the Icedôme project, which found its (definitive) Waterloo on June 3, 2014.

In spite of the fact that John is only one (hidden) source, who could give me a biased picture of the situation, I nevertheless print his story.

I don’t tell this story to judge upon the Icedôme organization, but to paint a picture of the situation: how such a high profile project could fail, due to ‘the best intentions’, investment anxiety, a devastating counter-lobby and apparent amateurism of the executive managers of the Icedôme project.

Excess secrecy and apparent amateurism at program manager Folkert Buiter

My friend John got involved in the Almere Icedôme project in an early stage of it. Apart from his work as civil servant for Sports Affairs in Almere, John had a practice for sports medicine.

For that matter, he was asked to participate in the Icedôme project on a ‘no cure, no pay’ basis: when the project would succeed eventually, he would become one of the partners in the consortium.

However, when the project would fail, he would lose his invested time, energy and money, without any kind of refund.

Next to John, other people and parties participated in a similar fashion, among whom a marketing specialist and other potential partners with a certain speciality. Everybody worked on voluntary basis, based upon the ‘no cure, no pay’ principle.

The only exception – according to John – was Folkert Buiter, who was hired by the founding companies – Royal BAM Groep NV ($BAMNB) and Van Wijnen Groep N.V. – as a program manager and public spokesperson for the project. 
However, John was not 100% certain about Folkert Buiter being actually paid for the assignment. 

CEO Cees van Bemmel of construction company Van Wijnen and Folkert Buiter both shared a working history in the city hall of Almere: Van Bemmel as alderman of the city and Buiter as a member of the city council. Both had finance, ground sales and area development in their portfolio.

This shared history and the longterm knowledge and involvement of Buiter with respect to the speedskating sport, is probably the reason that Folkert Buiter has been asked for this high profile assignment.

The thing that annoyed John most, during the whole preparation stage for the development of the Icedôme, was the secrecy that Folkert Buiter maintained with respect to the people and companies, that were participating in the Icedôme Consortium.

Only a few names were public knowledge, during the preparation stage of the Icedôme: construction companies BAM and Van Wijnen and the utilization company of sports venues, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG).

With regards to the other investors and utilization companies in the consortium, Buiter always kept his cards firmly to his chest: the sponsors and money lenders for the construction process, as well as the utilization companies for the sports and service areas, and the food and beverage services. Buiter did not only keep this secrecy to the outside world, but also to the original partners.

When the report with the endresult of the bidding process (Almere won this bid) was leaked to the press, the principal for the assignment  speedskating union KNSB   changed the rules with regards to the selection procedure, in order to give the former Dutch speedskate temple, Thialf Icestadium in Heerenveen, a second chance. The Almere Icedôme consortium was of course furious about this decision.

However, when mayor Annamarie Jorritsma and alderman Henk Mulder of Almere invited the people behind the Icedôme consortium, to discuss the possibility of starting a summary procedure against the KNSB, only the two construction companies and Folkert Buiter showed up, according to John. The desire to remain unknown apparently prevailed for the other partners.

Anschutz Entertainment Group had been involved in the Icedôme project, due to the circumstance that the Sales Director of AEG Europe, Frank Kolsteeg, was a resident of Almere. Kolsteeg got acquainted with Folkert Buiter and, according to John, he became excited about the project and wanted to participate in it, on behalf of AEG.

AEG, a globally leading company in the area of sports venue utilization, could be considered as a ‘partner from heaven’, as this famous name from the business could add some serious weight to the bid of the Almere Icedôme.

However, when Kolsteeg withdrew from the Icedôme project a few months ago, as he was not happy about the whole approach of the project, Buiter responded in an unemotional, even lackluster way; as if AEG abandoning the project was nothing more than a minor hickup for the Icedôme. This seemed very erratic, according to John.

Besides that, the consortium did not invest enough in advertising and brand marketing to bring and keep the Icedôme under the attention of the people. During the last nine months, there has been an almost complete radio silence about the Icedôme, to name something.

Too little commitment had been created among the residents of Almere AND the Dutch citizens, to fascinate the people for the development of the Icedôme. Even most citizens of Almere either did not care, or they were worried about the financial outcome of the project, but virtually nobody was really enthusiastic about it. 

John expected that at least the building perimeter would have been visualized and marked with a huge billboard for the Icedôme. 

I, as a matter of fact, also expected a powerful marketing campaign from the consortium:

  • to emphasize the importance of Almere, as speedskating capital of the future;
  • to inform the people about the opportunities of the Icedôme as a multifunctional sports venue;
  • to nullify the negative marketing and social media campaign from the group of skaters and other people, who were in favor of Icestadium Thialf in Heerenveen;
Now it could happen that the fierce, even mean battle from the ‘Thialf lobby’ against the Almere Icedôme, which had negativity and ‘low blows’ as its main trade mark, could continue without an upbeat “counterattack” from the Icedôme consortium.

The effect was even reinforced by the ultimate secrecy that program manager Folkert Buiter and his people maintained with respect to the progress and the protagonists of the contract negotiations. 

As a matter of fact, people could almost suggest that the Icedôme was a bogus operation and not financially viable at all, as Folkert Buiter et alumni hardly responded to these accusations, while showing the real data, facts and progress. And so the story, that the Icedôme was not viable, started to live a life of its own.

Lack of guts at the city hall of Almere

CEO Cees van Bemmel of construction company Van Wijnen had been responsible – as a former city alderman – for the development of the Topsportcentrum Almere (i.e. professional sports centre).

Although this multifunctional sports venue – according to Folkert Buiter – now runs at break even level or even with a small profit, this was very different in the beginning of the project, according to John. The city of Almere has invested millions and millions in the development and early utilization of this sports venue, without gaining this money back.

This multi million euro loss and the reputational damage that Almere suffered on this project and a few other projects, made the city of Almere very anxious to invest in and/or financially support the Icedôme. In other words: once bitten, twice shy! Almere did not want to take another financial risk on an open ended (?) project.

[As a resident of Almere, I actually endorse this caution of Almere at making such major investments – EL]

The unfortunate result of this decision was, however, that where the new Thialf Icestadium in Friesland received – an EU approved – financial contribution from the province of Friesland, Almere and Flevoland refused to invest in the Icedôme project themselves.

Almere could and would offer certain subsidies to slightly reduce the costs for developing and utilizing the Icedôme – some structure funds, a ground lease program to sell the ground at a price below marked-to-market level and a few subsidies for education and sports – but the city never wanted to make direct financial investments, in spite of the fact that the consortium urgently requested this after April 1, 2014.

John especially blamed Folkert Buiter for the fact, that he maintained his story about having funds in excess for the development and utilization of the Icedôme, while this probably was not true at that moment.

Ambivalence of the KNSB speedskating union.

John confirmed to me – what Folkert Buiter had stated earlier, in a telephone conversion with me at the beginning of April 2014 – that the contracts with moneylenders, as well as utilization companies, had been nearly signed at the time of April 1.

One of the reasons for these contracts to ultimately fail – according to John – was the fact that the KNSB never made a straight and exclusive choice for the Almere Icedôme, but virtually kept all options open for icestadium Thialf in Heerenveen and the TranSportium sports venue in Zoetermeer. Thialf and TranSportium considered this as an encouragement to continue their development process.

As a consequence, the situation would emerge that – instead of one successful, viable and possibly profitable speedskating venue – three icestadiums would be established, for which the utilization would become definitely unprofitable; for all involved parties.

Actually from the first moment on, the KNSB – represented by chairman Doekle Terpstra in those days – had shown a blatantly ambivalent stance against the Almere Icedôme:

  • First, there has been the pathetic bid procedure: the Icedôme initially seemed to have won the bid in June 2013, but the KNSB of Doekle Terpstra got cold feet after the final report leaked to the press. When a lot of protests emerged against Almere as the location for the national skating temple, the KNSB ordered an additional investigation. This investigation seemed nothing else than a pathetic attempt to get some extra time and therefore the judges of the Court of Justice made minced meat of it, after Almere started a summary proceedings against the KNSB.
  • Second, after the Almere Icedôme had eventually won the bid for the national skating temple, the KNSB, represented by Doekle Terpstra, stated in a press conference that winning this bid only warranted the organization of  ‘one of the international skating events’ per year. The locations for the other (inter)national skating events would still be at the discretion of the KNSB.
  • This means in practice that being the national skating temple could still be a dead hulk, in the worst case scenario. Especially, when the Frisian skating lobby uses its influence within the KNSB to push other international events towards the Thialf stadium again. This would have a devastating effect on the exploitation of the Almere Icedôme.
    And today, the Algemeen Dagblad (AD) reported a reconstruction of the decision process within the KNSB, which sheds again a very unfavourable light at chairman Doekle Terpstra:
Terpstra spun his opinion about the national skating temple 
KNSB chairman Doekle Terpstra announced to the outside world that the report, which chose Almere as the best location for the national skating temple, was unsound.

However, from internal emails from the KNSB it became clear that he did agree with the choice for Almere. The AD made its own reconstruction of the bid process.

On May 18, Terpstra agreed with the choice for Almere, but when the assessment report leaked to the press, he immediately changed direction. The born ‘Frisian’ Terpstra was attacked by all speedskate-lovers in Friesland, as he seemed to have single-handedly finished ‘their’ Thialf.

On top of this, John stated yesterday that the KNSB had changed the rules for the utilization of the sports venue once again, on 1 April 2014: the union demanded that the financial utilization should not be warranted for the initial five years, but for ten years instead. 

This intermediate change of the contract conditions was simply too much for the future utilizers of the venue and might have been the final blow, accelerating the failure of the Icedôme project.

It becomes clear from these events, that the KNSB has been a very unreliable partner from the beginning, afraid as it was for the powerful Thialf lobby.

In The Netherlands, people say "that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan".

However, in the case of the Almere Icedôme failure seems to have many fathers too.

No comments:

Post a Comment