Archive | December 2011

Altruism, Ambition or Obduracy – Motives Governing The Future Of The KC Stadium

The following piece is culled from an exchange of correspondence with a lifelong friend who lives in my home town, Hull, in England. A couple of months ago a story appeared in The Yorkshire Post quoting figures from a freedom of information request indicating that Hull City Council (HCC) collect very little revenue on the KC Stadium. This was a council funded project to build a 25,000 seat stadium to house Hull City and Hull FC. A Superstadium Management Company (SMC) was constituted tasked with running the stadium. The taxpayers still effectively fund the running of the stadium as the council has rented offices on the premises to the tune of £500,000 since inception. The SMC is allowed to keep various revenues including those from the car park at the venue. Since the stadium was completed, the SMC has been owned by the principals Hull City football club. The city council, under some contractual agreement with the SMC, does receive funds but it is minimal and the article quotes figures as low as £16 per week – a paltry return on a £46 million investment. The contract was originally negotiated by the Labour led HCC and it has subsequently tied the hands of successive councils for the next 50 years. The Yorkshire post has actually printed two separate articles just about a year apart. The first from October 2010 can be accessed here and the second from August 2011 is available by clicking this link. Both tell a similar story of a watertight contract where the city council has dealt itself a poor hand. I feel sure that The Yorkshire Post will follow up again in 2012 but the story never seems to catch fire in the local press.

The Back Story

The HCC owned the only privately held telephone company in the UK. A decision was made to take the company public and an IPO was set up for Kingston Communications. Many of the local subscribers as were offered shares in the company and took the opportunity to purchase a piece of the ownership. Of the funds raised, £46 million was spent on the construction of the stadium. The construction was completed in 2002.

Hull City, known as a club that dwelt in the middle reaches of the Football league for most of its existence, had experienced a reasonable degree of success under the patronage of the Needler family and with a skillful team on the pitch, gates as high as the mid 40,000 were not uncommon at Boothferry Park in the latter part of the 1960′s. A new training facility, a new stand and high tech floodlights were the tangible testimony to that success. The team was not able to maintain that success very far into the future and a succession of managers and owners heralded false dawns and the club flirted with dropping out of the football league and administration. Adam Pearson’s purchase of the club not far from its lowest point and the move to the KC led to an upturn in its fortunes and successive promotions took it to the league’s second tier. Adam Pearson, realizing his own financial limitations sold the club on. The new ownership stewarded the club into the Premier League for the first time in its 104 year history and it stayed there for 2 seasons. The drop back into the second tier highlighted financial frailties and again there were reports of massive debts due to funding a high wage bill and large squad of players. The owner, Russell Bartlett, reluctantly agreed to sell the club having made every attempt to remain in control by courting additional financing. Adam Pearson, again back at the club to resolve the financial mess in which the club was embroiled, brokered the deal with Assem Allam and his son, owners of Allam Marine, a local manufacturer.

Assem Allam is an Egyptian who has lived in the Hull area for over 40 years and has raised his family there. His son Ehab is in the family business and is involved with Hull City. The Allams also own the SMC. By any standards, the Allams are rich, the result of hard work in establishing a successful manufacturing concern. They are estimated to be worth in excess of £150 million. Now that is not Russian Oil rich or Middle Eastern sheikh rich but they are more than comfortable. Part of purchase price was the elimination of the existing debt and after the elimination of a good part of the everyday expense in player salaries; the Allams have provided funds for players with more promised in January if additions are necessary. Assem Allam has provided funds to Hull Kingston Rovers, a top tier rugby league club in the east of the city, to forge links with them and he has an ongoing relationship with Hull FC, the other top tier rugby league team which is a tenant of the KC Stadium. Hull FC was recently purchased by Adam Pearson who continues with his role as an executive at Hull City.

Mr. Allam promotes the city of Hull at every opportunity; he has recently brought a major squash championship to the city and will sponsor it for the next 3 years. He has a vision for the part of the city where the KC Stadium resides and has made no bones about the fact that he would like to purchase it and develop a sports village around the stadium to house a number of sports and provide facilities to the citizens of Hull. In what may be considered a naïve move, he has also perhaps revealed his trump card very early in the discussions with a real threat to move the club out of the KC to a purpose built stadium and sports complex outside of Hull to the west of the city in Melton. This has somewhat divided opinion on Mr. Allam’s motives and you can only take it on face value.

As I have re-read and rewritten this earlier correspondence that formed the backbone of this piece, I have tried to define in my mind the motives of those on each side of the argument and then asked myself whether a Russian oil billionaire or Middle Eastern sheikh would have elicited the same response.

The original now follows:

I think you have to go back to the origins of the stadium to get to the root of the dilemma facing the local council. If you take the stance that the original phone company was established and run for the good of the populace of Hull and that the sale of Kingston Communications brought a vast amount of “found” money into the city coffers, then that money should have been used for some project that would have benefited the city overall. If you take the position that less than 10% of the whole catchment area benefit from the stadium then you have to conclude that the money was taken out of use for the general public and directed for the benefit of the few. This is not a socialist position but one that with hindsight sees the money burning a hole in the council’s pocket and not reviewing all of its options.

The stadium has not done Hull City and to a lesser extent FC any favors. The value of these clubs is diminished because the only asset they have is the team and to a lesser extent the training facilities but of more import is the fact that they do not have the means to borrow against tangible assets and must rely upon the wealth of such as the Allams’ (real – top 30) or Bartlett (paper wealth only). Adam Pearson in his first spell with the club recognized this, admitted he didn’t have the money to progress the club and moved on.

If the stadium was built for speculative reasons because they didn’t know what to do with the money, then the council would be right to sell at a time when they have a better project in mind and when the valuation of the stadium is beneficial to them. Negotiating now or periodically in the future would be the right course of action.

If the Allam’s have the means available to build their “village” in Melton then the council could be left with a white elephant and the only recourse to pull it down and sell the land.

Obviously I don’t know the Allams and cannot judge their intentions but I am sure that there has to be something in it for them as well as their philanthropic desires to give something back. The European model is very much in line with the Allams plans. The “Sportverein” in Germany headed by a Bundesliga club provide just the facilities he is talking about for the benefit of the general public.

If the council do want to provide a legacy then facilitating the sale of the stadium and allowing Allam to redevelop the Walton St area (badly in need of it!) with the additional facilities would be in their best interest as having laid the foundation with the KC, sold it on responsibly and pocketed a load of cash for who knows what to bring more money into the city.

There was no objection from the council when they thought a casino license was coming to Hull, in all aspects the Allam plan seems a lot more wholesome and long lived.

Conclusion

The situation is obviously at an impasse. The HCC has apparently drawn its line in the sand, happy to collect no money from its investment and yet rightfully rankled that the Allams have been so heavy handed in its initial negotiations. They would want a fair price for the facility; it may also not like the idea that a private company has some radical plans to regenerate an area of the city that sorely needs it and it may even be a source of embarrassment to them; although most councils have much more embarrassing things to worry about and this should not faze them. Would the development not provide additional tax revenue and facilities for the city? There is no doubt that two years in the Premier league enhanced the reputation of the city and brought revenue in. Would an improved facility lead to more high profile events being staged in the future?

People have questioned the veracity of the Allams’ motives. They have already pumped more into the team than it is worth based on value of the players. The stadium and the team together would increase the value accordingly in the event that they needed to sell down the road. I don’t know whether they offered a fair value for the facility but you can understand the HCC wanting to get the best price possible for the people of Hull and to reinvest in another worthwhile project. The Allams would not sell their assets at a knock down price but you can understand as businessmen that they want to get the best deal possible. Obviously they want to make money but there is no evidence to suggest that their desire to give back to the city is overshadowed by the profit motive and no reason to believe that both cannot be achieved. A proposed move to Melton, if it can be achieved for the amount they are budgeting, is some years away and is a higher risk proposition. They may have to come back to the negotiating table with a shift in attitude.

I did pose myself a question earlier as to whether the Russian and the sheikh would be treated the same way in view of the amount of cash they have at their disposal. My answer is that I hope so, that the council would make deal based on sound business principles whoever approaches them. At the moment, they get nothing; selling the stadium and banking the money would reap more than they have made so far. I am sure that they have other office space they can use and save the rent they are paying the SMC. I would hope that they could find that elusive project that would provide a lasting legacy for the city of Hull and that the people of Hull get a sports complex that is second to none in the UK – however that is achieved.

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Killing The Vinyl Revolution One 33 1/3 At A Time

As a reasonably early adopter, I bought an MP3 player with the thought of transferring some of my CD’s to listen at work or while travelling. For once, I had, apparently, got it right in taking a gamble on the future of music being digital. I had toted my vinyl album collection to college, across the Atlantic and a variety of homes in the USA without the ability, in some instances of listening to them with any regularity. But they were lovingly cared for, even though they had worn during the years and the college period was particularly hard on them.

I had avoided the 8-track pitfall on my own account but my father couldn’t resist a deal and had one installed in his car. To combat the constant stream of Frank Sinatra and Big Band music, I did buy one 8-track cartridge that was guaranteed to blow the doors off the car when I was allowed to borrow it. Uriah Heep’s “…very ‘eavy, ….very ‘umble” would regularly wake the neighbours as I returned from a night out with friends in the wee hours of the morning.

Having arrived in the US without a raft of electrical equipment due to issues with voltage and anticipating only a 3 year stay, I added to my collection using cassette tapes. I know, I know – they stretch, get wound up in the car (you don’t see yards of tape of tape lying on the side of the road like you used to after being yanked out of the stereo and ejected out of the car window and the reproduction is iffy accompanied by the constant background hiss). The CD was in its infancy and having seen the disappointment of those who had replaced their entire collection with 8-tracks, I wasn’t going to fall for that craze, not this smart cookie. I was going to wait! Disenchantment with the cassette soon set in and I returned to vinyl.

Audiophiles should applaud now because you ain’t going to like me later!

My love affair with vinyl lasted another couple of years until I was convinced that the CD was here to stay, relatively speaking of course. Despite some lingering reservations and countless battles removing the over elaborate packaging, the CD became my medium of choice. Apparent that my stay in the US was going to be longer than originally intended, I jumped in with both feet and bought the Harman Kardon CDR2 to convert the vinyl to CD rather than repurchase all of the old albums some of which have never ever been released on CD.

Audiophiles should let out their collective groan, I did warn you, but there may be worse to come!

The Harman Kardon requires the special music blanks which work out a little more expensive than the computer disks that are labeled “music” but will not actually work in the CDR2. I recorded a number of my favorite albums to CD and liked the ease and convenience of the CD but something was not right. Early CD players in cars often would not play recordable disks which I found out the hard way as my new vehicle was one of them. I abandoned that project.

Audiophiles see redemption on the horizon but wait!

The other thing that bothered me was the reproduction in great detail of the static, pops, clicks and hisses on the original vinyl.

Audiophiles are apoplectic; they are charging up the paddles and calling their emergency support groups!

Fast forward a decade or so and I buy a new car. This has an IPod docking station in the glove box and is controlled through the stereo with screens and everything. I have to buy the IPod but I will have to load up my CD’s into ITunes first. The CD’s were the easiest to load and the process was quickly accomplished even though I had used the highest bit rate possible to maintain as much quality as possible.

I looked lovingly at my boxes and cupboards of vinyl, some had not been played in over 20 years, and had to make a decision. I decided I wanted to hear the music and be able to take it with me anywhere I went as part of my collection. That meant digitizing the albums but I didn’t want to hear all of the imperfections.

Having made this decision, I needed to buy a new turntable at a reasonable price. I eschewed the notion of an all in one to record directly to MP3 as I wanted control of the quality and after all the Harman Kardon still worked perfectly. Research showed that you get what you pay for, the cheaper turntables, according to the experts in the audio shops, are designed pretty much as throwaway items. For instance, the stylus cannot be changed. I settled on a Sony PS-LX350H.

In the years since my first attempt at recording the vinyl, the computer software has advanced exponentially. There is a myriad of programs available to “remaster” your audio files. Again I researched this as best I could and bought Goldwave. This has features that satisfy the more sophisticated user yet was simple enough for a beginner like me to grasp.

The process is fairly straightforward. After loading the recorded CD into Goldwave, I was able, in the vast majority of cases, to make 4 passes of the digital file. The first looks for the pops and clicks and eliminates or vastly reduces them, the second takes the initial noise and uses that signature to eliminate all like sounds throughout the album, the third takes out light hiss and hum and finally I max the output of each channel. The tracks can be easily separated and any inordinately long silences can be eliminated or shortened.

Then I recorded the output in CD format on to another disk using Roxio, reinserted the disk and loaded it into ITunes. If I have been careful enough, ITunes will find the track names via Gracenote and the cover artwork. With some of the more obscure albums, I had to enter the tracks manually and find covers on the internet.

The job is not finished but with over 1,400 albums (including CD’s) in the system, it is well on the way. There are little issues with some of the albums that remain. I have carefully cleaned, often washed the albums, to get them into the best condition possible. When necessary I have taped a dime on to the arm of the turntable to prevent a couple of skips and I have used slightly hotter water to soften the edges of a couple of albums so that they could be gently pressed flat to eliminate warps. I have even experimented on a couple of concert DVD’s and produced CD’s to load into ITunes. The next phase is recording the cassette tapes and getting that annoying hiss out of the music.

Overall this has been a labour of love. Rediscovering some of these albums that are perhaps 40 years old has been a pleasure and now I have the ability to listen to them when I want and wherever I am. There is a lot of work involved also. Everything about the process is real time, 45 minutes to listen and record the album, 20 minutes to load and set up the .wav file, 45 minutes to run the remaster process and prepare the files for recording on to a CD, 16 minutes to burn the CD, 20 minutes to load into ITunes, fix the song titles and album artwork, 15 minutes to thoroughly wipe the CDRW’s before the process begins again. That is close to 2 ¾ hours for one album. I shudder to think of the total time involved.

Audiophiles, I am going to throw you a couple of bones. I am not a blind piano tuner so my auditory senses are not honed but having recorded the albums at the highest bit rate possible, I suspect that I can tell that the sound may be fuller than a CD reproduction. I say may be because in the process of the initial recording, the sound is sometimes thin and with all of the adjustments that can be made with software and modern home theater systems, you can give the illusion of a big sound. The second is that these vinyl albums will not be kicked to the sidewalk. To begin with, I may occasionally play them in their current state and bask in the knowledge that I have turned back the clock in restoring them to their former glory – well almost. Add to this that in my search for images of album covers, I have often found them on specialist dealer and auction sites, I was staggered by the prices offered and asked for the very albums that I owned. Now I may be scouring the sidewalks myself for those piles of records that people leave for the garbage collectors without any thought for what you can do with them with a little time and effort. The artists intended for the music to be heard and not the sounds of wear and tear on the vinyl and that is how I want to hear it. Audiophiles consider themselves to be purists in their defence of vinyl but if you want to hear music as it is originally played and recorded by the artist, would they not be looking for mono reproductions?

As a final note, I see an increasing number of new vinyl albums sold by current artists and I am sure they will sell well but where on earth do you find a record shop these days?


Jeremy Clarkson – Please Can This Be The Last We Hear Of Him?

Jeremy Clarkson’s latest episode of failing to engage his brain before opening his mouth, has come at no small cost to the BBC which has been forced to apologise once again for outlandish comments made by Clarkson in front of a live audience. The cost may not be immediate but at some point they have to decide what to do with this man. Not to act could be seen as being selective following the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand episode and one would expect that they would have to show some degree of consistency in dealing with incidents that could cause them embarrassment if the groundswell of public outrage is sufficient.

Today’s apology from Clarkson lent heavily on an assertion that it was meant to be humorous but even at the time it was obvious that it fell far short of that objective. As most people who either read his columns or watch Top Gear will attest, the humour is “laddish”, public schoolboy giggling at some prank type with a recurring theme that you have to belittle someone to feel superior. In most cases this comes across as part of banter between the hosts of Top Gear with other jibes made at groups of people (truck drivers), nationalities (Mexicans and Americans), and public figures who may or may not appear on the show to return the compliment, for instance John Prescott.

It is nigh impossible to determine the veracity of the apology in the written form and to establish if there is contrition or it was just uttered because it had to be done.

There is little doubt that Clarkson is a bright and intelligent individual who has found the formula to providing, at least up to now, something that a statistically relevant percentage of the population wants to see. Top Gear has risen to new highs of popularity under his stewardship and although not many of the audience can even aspire to drive some of the vehicles shown in the programme, they are prepared to live vicariously through the presenters and enjoy that escapism for an hour every week. Like it or not, the elevation of the presenters in the minds of the audience, can, in certain quarters, lead them to believe much of what they say including some of the more outrageous statements. There is no suggestion that execution squads will seek out public sector workers and act on the utterings of Clarkson but people have done odd things based on celebrity over-exposure. This may be an absolute stretch but it was not long ago that social media was adjudged to have been responsible for inciting riots and even overthrowing governments. Indeed, prosecutions were made in the UK against individuals responsible.

There is, unfortunately, a section of community that think because people are “celebrities” they have something to say. A whole genre of magazines and television programmes has emerged to serve that very need. Politicians in the USA even enlist the help of actors and other personalities to tap into that market. “The One Show” may be guilty of feeding this by eliciting responses about current events from individuals whose responses may not be tempered, moderate or considered.

One can take issue with Clarkson on a number of points:

  • Whether you agree or not, the public sector has the right to withdraw its labour. Unfortunately because many of the everyday government functions are affected this tends to draw more ire then normal.
  • They do work and are employed, Clarkson also works but the difference in income is somewhat immense. Whether the individuals actually perform is a matter for the employer, in most cases the government or government agencies.
  • Most workers have to contribute to pensions, most may have had benefits reduced or had to accept that their plans are not gilt edged. Public sector workers will have to accept that it is inevitable for them. Public sector workers in Wisconsin and Illinois occupied the state capitol buildings over several weeks to protest similar changes in their pension arrangements. Clarkson is disingenuous to suggest that he suffers having to make his own pension arrangements along with other “workers” with whom he has little in common based on annual income.
  • Whilst he must buy the same staple items as everyone else the effect of price increases provide no more than a minor irritation as opposed to others who must juggle the budget. Indeed his choice of vehicles and the way he drives them suggests he has more than enough money to burn.

But what of the BBC dilemma?

The BBC has made cuts to be more fiscally responsible and ideally, if they were sticking strictly to principles, they would take the appropriate action against Clarkson. With a magnified focus on license fees the BBC has to look elsewhere to generate income which it does through DVD sales, licensing etc. More and more income is derived from overseas as it expands its brands with channels such as BBC America and sells programmes or rights to them to local channels overseas. The success of Top Gear as well as Strictly Come Dancing in overseas markets will not be ignored by the BBC. In some respects, Clarkson may have the upper hand as Top Gear continues to be popular in the UK and has a huge following in the USA. Spin offs have not been that successful as they try to make an exact copy of the formula but they do not have the chemistry between the local hosts and they look a little embarrassed to say the least.

The BBC must ask itself how long it can ride the Top Gear horse. In watching the Top Gear marathons in the US, it becomes obvious that the formula may be more than a little stale. Many of the segments are juvenile, though they may appear fresh to an emerging group of juveniles, the pranks become old and predictable (are some of these staged or are they just that foolhardy?) and the pantomime exchanges of “oh yes it is, oh not it’s not” regarding the relative merits of a Porsche or a Ferrari lend nothing to the program.

If that income stream has an end in sight, and certainly Clarkson’s outrageous statements over time could hasten that possibility, then the BBC should take the high road and relieve Clarkson of his duties immediately.

I at least can make my own choice and take Top Gear off my DVR scheduler but that doesn’t prevent Clarkson infiltrating my consciousness if the media continue to provide a stage for him.

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