Henson Park is being redeveloped by AFL team Sydney Swans, and rugby league club Newtown Jets

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By Lanie Tindale

The Inner West Council has supported a proposal to negotiate the redevelopment of Henson Park’s King George V Grandstand with AFL NSW/ACT, Sydney Swans and Newtown Jets.

The clubs have offered a $4 million development of the Marrickville facilities in exchange for a “long term lease of the grandstand and a licence over the sporting ground.”

Inner West Council Mayor Darcy Byrne described the resolution as “an incredibly exciting opportunity. It’s incredibly rare that you find two competing codes…who are willing to collaborate together to improve a local community sporting facility to share a home.”

While the lease on the grandstand would mean exclusive use by the AFL and rugby league clubs, recreational use would still be permitted on the grounds of Henson Park.

The rugby league club Newtown Jets, based in Henson Park since 1937, and AFL NSW currently have separate non-exclusive licences for playing matches and training during winter. These licences are due to end in April 2025.

The grandstand restoration will include the development of change rooms, amenities, a new gym, office, player’s lounge and lift access.

Group Manager for Parks, Trees and Sportsfields, Cathy Edwards-Davis said that the public will not be able to use these facilities, but “there’s other facilities in the ground.”

General Manager of Newtown Jets Stewart McCarthy spoke on the motion, claiming the Newtown Jets, also known as ‘the Bluebags’, is a not-for-profit organisation and as such was able to bypass the tender process, and be offered the lease outright.

“All organisations require security of tenure.”

Mr McCarthy said he wished to “confirm the not-for-profit status of our club as determined by the Australian Taxation Office.”

He went on to call Henson Park the Newtown Jets’ “spiritual home since 1936.”

Mr McCarthy cited other occasions the Jets had lobbied Federal and State governments for upgrades to Henson Park. “Whilst we would like to continue to work with council and AFL to seek funding support…we are only able to do that and apply for that if council is able to provide security of tender to both of our organisations.”

Cr Byrne sought clarification from the Council’s legal team as to the not-for-profit status of the Jets. The representative quipped she would “be surprised if the Sydney Swans were” a not-for-profit organisation. The Mayor added an objective to the resolution seeking clarification on the status of the Newtown Jets.

Cr Byrne said: “We all know about the very special place that the Newtown Jets hold in the Inner West community”.

“Whether it’s through a tender process or not, I’m very confident that we can come to a solution which will give security of tenure to the Swans and the NSW AFL and the Jets for the long term.”

On the 16th of February in this year Cr Byrne is quoted on the Sydney Swans website as saying: “Henson Park will always be the home of the Newtown Jets…I look forward to this ground becoming not only a fortress for the Bluebags, but for the Sydney Swans as well.”

Greens Councillor Louise Steer said that the tender process non-for-profit exemption is for “small organisations without much cash, it’s not meant for large wealthy organisations to get their own…I would definitely prefer it to go to tender for transparency and accountability.”

Cr Steer told City Hub: “To ask for a lease for 21 years without going through a tender process is simply bad governance.  We need to be seen to be transparent and accountable. That is a very valuable lease, 21 years. It is silly to say it is just for the Grandstand, it is for the grounds as well.”

“No sporting group has the right to expect permanent tenure on any council grounds, the decisions must be based on merit and meeting the criteria of council policies. Otherwise no new groups would ever get a look in, and that would be unfair as well.”

“The Newtown Jets have had a long tradition in the area, but soccer is actually the most popular sport in the area now. We know that from the Council’s own recreation needs study.”

Henson Park was established in 1933 and features the King George V Grandstand which seats about 1000 fans. There is a 200-space car park and corporate centre on the north side of the Grandstand. The facilities were last upgraded in 2011, costing the Federal Government $920,000.

Cr Byrne proposed working towards the objective of “a Sydney Swans women’s AFL team playing out of the park in the future and that we do the same for the Cronulla Sharks”.

The Newtown Jets and league’s Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks have been in a partnership since 2015, whereby the contracted Sharks players not required for the week’s NRL match can play for the Jets.

“I think that would be a huge boost for women and girls sport in the Inner West and across Sydney.”