On the surface it seems like a classic David v Goliath battle that would suit a sequel to ‘The Castle’.
The big, bad government and the powerful footy club on one side, the humble community showground on the other.
For some that is how the decision to build the new Penrith Stadium on the site of the Penrith Showground and Paceway is being portrayed.
“Save the Showground” is the call from many, who believe that its 177-year history in Penrith must be preserved, along with the tradition of harness racing, the Wednesday markets and the many other events that happen at the Station Street site each year.
Of course, there is more to this story.
Anyone who has followed this for a while would know that the site of the new stadium and the future of the showground are actually separate issues that just happen to have ended up on a collision course.
The belief that the State Government and Panthers are somehow the big bad wolves here that are coming in to wipe away 177 years of history is both unfair and incorrect.
The truth and undisuputed reality is that the Paceway and Showground’s future in the Penrith CBD had an hourglass with ever-rushing sand sifting through it hanging over its head.
As far back as 2018, the Paceway and Showground wanted out of the Penrith CBD, accepting that changing times and economic circumstances meant that a new location, perhaps in a rural part of Penrith, was the key to future security.
Part of their plan, however, was to vacate the Station Street site cashed up, having worked with a developer to see towering apartment blocks built where the Paceway and Showground now stands.
In total there would have been dozens of residential towers and more than 2,300 apartments.
But that would have required significant rezoning, and it became apparent in recent months that Council had no intention of green lighting more apartment blocks in that part of town.
So that essentially leaves the Paceway with a problem: it can’t survive long-term at the existing site, but it won’t get the cash bonanza to move elsewhere.
With all due respect to the Paceway and Showground, and I do have enormous respect for the history and people involved, the housing plan was a stinker.
In a city already struggling to balance infrastructure with a growing population, the site just isn’t right for thousands more apartments and it makes sense for the zoning to stay recreational.
What also makes sense is for Penrith’s new stadium to be built on the site that makes the most sense, given it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity we shouldn’t get wrong.
As I wrote some weeks ago, the Showground site is indeed the perfect location.
I was never convinced that a slightly bigger stadium on the existing site was a winning idea, but having a clean slate on a much bigger footprint is a huge win for Penrith, its economy and of course the Panthers.
It will allow the State Government to build a stadium that can be legitimately used for other events, like BankWest Stadium at Parramatta is now.
And it will be run by Venues NSW, not Panthers, despite the message some are trying to push. Panthers will simply be an anchor tenant.
The real question here is not about saving the Paceway and Showground in its current form, but whether or not the State Government should be stepping in to help fund its relocation and building of a new facility somewhere else in Penrith.
One Nation’s Mark Latham certainly believes they should.
“We need to rally support for the Penrith Paceway and Showground which has just been kicked off its land by the NSW Govt, without any alternative for relocating and rebuilding its facilities,” he said on Twitter.
“Dreadful treatment of a great, long-standing community facility employing 100 people. Penrith Paceway and Showground has received a Compulsory Acquisition Notice from Infrastructure NSW, kicking them out because the Panthers don’t want to lose home games while their new stadium is being built.”
Mr Latham is shooting from the hip, perhaps unsurprisingly, and doesn’t appear to have all the facts.
But the question remains: Should the State Government find the Showground and Paceway a new home?
The raw fact is it doesn’t have to. It can pay what’s deemed fair, build the new stadium and leave the Showground and Paceway to sort out their own future.
But what does the community expect?
That’s a difficult question to answer.
Support for harness racing appears to be in constant decline. The glory days are over.
The Wednesday markets are a shadow of what they once were.
The Penrith Show is on once a year, and many would question it too has fallen away in quality over the last decade or so.
The club itself is a strong community facility employing many people and that is an important consideration.
But the truth is the Paceway’s future may have been determined long ago; by not accepting the realities of what was happening sooner. That doesn’t mean the community won’t rally behind them here, but whether it’ll be strong enough for the government to spend even more money in assisting with a relocation and new build is another matter.
And the Paceway may have to prove it could be financially viable on its own two feet in the long term to justify the spend. That in itself might be difficult.
I hope the Showground and Paceway finds a way to survive here.
Whenever history must make way for progress, the desired outcome is always to preserve what we can of the past; to respect those who worked so hard to develop something so important.
Sometimes, however, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes all your left with is the memories.
Should that be the outcome, it’ll be a sad time in Penrith, but one with a light at the end of the tunnel: a land parcel in the Penrith CBD dedicated to recreational use and entertainment will remain true to that purpose.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.