LONDON (Reuters) - British Olympic chiefs, keen to secure a lasting future for London’s costly sporting arenas, hope to find a permanent tenant for its centrepiece stadium by March - a deal seen as a barometer of the project’s financial health.
Six months since London won worldwide kudos for hosting the Games, wrangling over the future of the stadium is seen as a litmus test for Britain’s ability to turn the sprawling Olympics complex into a new and vibrant part of London.
Officials picked English Premier League football club West Ham as preferred bidders in 2011, but that deal collapsed because of a legal dispute. West Ham were reinstalled as the most likely tenant last month but negotiations are not concluded.
Speaking to reporters inside the Olympic park - now a ghost town full of half-dismantled buildings and windswept, snow-encrusted fields - officials said talks were likely to be concluded by March.
“We are going though the financial details to get to a point where a contract could be signed,” said Colin Naish, Executive Director of Infrastructure, Olympic Park Legacy.
“West Ham are our top ranking bidder at the moment. ... Talks are progressing,” he added, pointing at the arena towering high above the vast and empty Olympic park.
London has prided itself on securing the future of many other Olympic sites, many of which, including the basketball arena, are in the process of being dismantled and shipped for re-use elsewhere.
The Games themselves may have been a great success but there are worries about the future of the Olympic Park and observers have warned the global financial crisis has exacerbated the risk of its turning into an expensive white elephant.
The fate of the 60,000-capacity stadium, where athletics stars like Mo Farah and Usain Bolt captivated the world with their performances last summer, remains the biggest headache.
The venue is key to London Mayor Boris Johnson’s promises to regenerate and transform London’s scruffy, post-industrial East End into a vibrant and modern part of the capital.
“We certainly don’t call them white elephants,” said Peter Tudor, director of venues at the Olympic Park Legacy Company. “If you are hunting for white elephants you’ve come to the wrong Olympic Games.”
Finding a permanent new tenant who can regularly draw big crowds to the stadium would bring much-needed money and attention to the area but the process seems to have been going around in circles for the past couple of years.
The original West Ham deal has collapsed because of legal wrangling. A new agreement would leave the 430 million pound ($693 million) stadium in public ownership but grant the soccer club a 99-year lease.
West Ham want to install retractable seating over the athletics track and add the features of a modern soccer stadium including executive boxes. The venue would probably not be ready for use until the 2016-17 season.
The stumbling blocks to any deal are how to divide up the costs of the conversion, estimated at up to 150 million pounds, and ensuring taxpayers stand to benefit from any increase in the value of the club following the move.
But officials are keen to present it as a success story. A new park, built over the Olympic area, will partially reopen to the public in July. Concerts, festivals and sporting events are scheduled to be held to mark the first anniversary of the Games.
Dennis Hone, chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, said he was optimistic about the stadium: “It’s a 99-year concession so are going to make sure that that deal will stick ... We are working hard on it.”
Editing by Stephen Addison