Arena will be Edinburgh entrepreneur Tom Ponton's legacy to the city he loves
THE announcement that Edinburgh is to get its own arena may well be the start of a new chapter of the Capital’s music and entertainment scene, but for one man it marks the end of a seven-year journey to realise a dream of leaving a legacy to the city he loves.
“It’s very exciting times, something I have been trying to do for about seven years – I never gave up,” says 72-year-old Edinburgh entrepreneur Tom Ponton.
He recalls: “When I had the initial idea... it was quite funny the way it happened. I found this book on a bus in Edinburgh, a glossy magazine with pictures of an arena in Dubai. That’s what gave me the idea – I thought, ‘We really need one of them in Edinburgh.’
“When I looked into it further, I discovered Edinburgh was the only Capital city in Europe that didn’t have an arena, so I got in touch with the contact in the book and asked if they might be interested in the idea. They were, so I went down to Leeds to see them.”
There, the arena developers agreed that Ponton would be taken on by them as a consultant, his job, to find a site in the city which would be suitable for an Edinburgh Arena. It would prove a challenging task.
“When I was taken on as a consultant, I then went to Tom Buchanan who at that time was the Economic Development Chairman at the Council.
“He wanted it to happen in Edinburgh and introduced me to Dave Anderson, the Director of Economic Development, who I already knew, and Peter Watton who was Head of Estates but they couldn’t find a site in Edinburgh.
“However, Dave found this company who had a bit of land out at Ingliston and I had a meeting with them, they seemed quite keen. We gave them all the information that they needed, they picked our brains basically, and then said, ‘We’ll maybe do this ourselves and you can come on as consultants’, which we declined. So that was the end of them.”
As one door closed, however, another appeared to open thanks to a call from the chief executive of Edinburgh Airport.
“They had a bit of land they weren’t using and thought that might be a good enough site,” the businessman explains.
“Now, the previous site had been a field by the railway line and the airport and this was a similar site.
“In hindsight, it was probably the worst possible location – can you imagine the congestion if you had an arena out there with the airport and the Royal Highland Show – it would have been a nightmare.”
That plan too quickly fell by the wayside leaving a despondent Ponton back at square one.
“By chance I met an old pal in The Dome on George Street around that time,” he recalls. “I was saying how peed off I was trying to find a site for an arena in Edinburgh and he said, ‘Have you ever thought about looking at Midlothian – the boundary is only about 600 yards from Edinburgh, it might be worth talking to the council there.
“So, I spoke to a guy called Gary Sherratt who was brilliant and really open for business. He came back with a plot of land 30 acres which was zoned for leisure and was perfect.”
He continues: “The land is close to that at one time identified as the possible location of a Scottish film studio. It’s not the same land, although the second phase of the project may be on that land. It’s a great site, if you go into the car park of Burger King at Straiton and look towards Edinburgh and the bypass, it’s all that land.”
He adds: “At this point we set up Lothian Leisure Development and agreed to do a joint venture. I am the chairman of Lothian Leisure Development and I have two partners, Dave Fowler and Nick Brown. Nick is an award-winning architect and Dave has 25 experience working with some of the biggest names in music and the entertainment industry.”
Next Lothian Leisure Development brought arena operators NEC on board.
“NEC are a fantastic partner. We thought we’d have a capacity of 13,000, the same as Glasgow’s Hydro, but NEC came on board and said, ‘Glasgow is a 13,000 capacity and they can’t always fill it, if you have 8,000 people in a 13,000 arena it looses the atmosphere, but if you have a 8,000 capacity, there are many more bands that will play that, and this way, we will compliment Glasgow rather than compete with it.”
It is hoped that other big names will also become partners in the development, reveals Ponton.
“The arena will double as a conference and exhibition centre and we plan to have two hotels – we are talking to Radisson and Hilton – a multi-storey car park and a 1,500 seat theatre. There will also be upmarket retail outlets and all the usual restaurants, but what makes this project different is the fact it will be the only arena that has no public money involved, the financing, around £400 million [£40 million of which will be the Arena], is coming from investors.”
The expected opening date of the venture is the end of 2023/beginning of 2024 with a second phase due to open around the same time.
“The second phase will probably run alongside it and open at the same time. We already have interest from Legoland and The Bear Grylls Adventure to be part of that,” says Ponton.
He adds, “I’m excited. Having been in local government for 23 years, unfortunately I was in opposition for much of that time so didn’t really get to achieve that much, so this gives me a great sense of achievement. My involvement is not driven by the financial side, its about leaving a legacy to Edinburgh, because although it’s in Midlothian, everyone will relate to it as The Edinburgh Arena.
“My passion for music had a lot to do with my desire to make this happen. I’ve been all over the world seeing some of the best acts and, being an Edinburgh person brought up on the Royal Mile, my passion for Edinburgh is boundless. It really is the greatest city in the world. It has everything, a castle, a palace and now it will have its long-awaited arena.”
Ponton thinks for a moment when asked who he’d like to see open the venue. “I’d like to get a really big name play the opening night, my own personal favourite is Billy Joel, I’ve seen him five or six times, so he would be my ideal opener.”