Chris Parkin's plans for Wellington

Last updated 10:25 15/11/2010
Chris Parkin
CHRIS SKELTON/Dominion Post

Chris Parkin has more plans for the capital.

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Self-declared fervent capitalist Chris Parkin has made many hats for himself in Wellington - property developer, hotelier, local body politician, art collector and patron. And he still has more plans for the capital, writes Rebecca Palmer.

The first object of Chris Parkin's single-mindedness was an electric train set. It cost two years of childhood labour in Otaki, much of it bean picking.

The next obsession was a scooter. His first one was homemade, with a Briggs and Stratton lawnmower engine and a flat tyre. "I couldn't afford an inner tube so I tried stuffing it with dried grass. Wasn't successful."

As soon as he turned 15, he got his driver's licence and bought his first car. It was followed by his first motorbike, a Norton Dominator. He modelled himself on the bikers he saw in British magazines. "I used to have the black leather jacket and the white silk scarf . . . I felt very pleased with myself."

Nowadays, Parkin, 62, has plenty of sets of wheels. Enough, in fact, to feature in a biker magazine himself this year, talking about his motorcycling adventures to India, Turkey and the Pakistan-Afghan border. He was pictured alongside a shiny, limited edition MV Agusta bike parked in the foyer of his Museum Hotel.

How many cars does he own? "1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6. I've just got an Aston Martin DB7 recently. That's very nice."

And motorbikes? "1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5. That includes the ones on display.

"I do sometimes get them out. The only one I will never ride again is that ridiculous thing in the gallery - the chopper."

The "gallery" is the hotel's Long Gallery, a display area by the hotel's car park, opened in February by Prime Minister John Key. With the chopper, it also features a portrait of Key comprised of thousands of coloured pieces of toast.

Christopher Wilton Parkin - hotelier, property developer, arts patron and former Wellington city councillor - is a man of eclectic interests and tastes. Obsessed though he is with mechanical things, he has also earned a reputation as an art collector, with about 70 of his acquisitions dotted throughout his opulent hotel. There's even a guidebook.

He lives with his partner, Michelle Robertson, in an eighth-floor apartment in the hotel. The couple moved in last year after selling their previous home, another penthouse apartment just along the corridor. While the lobby may be his public living room, the apartment is her "territory". The decorations, including a zebra skin on the floor - bought from a shop in Featherston rather than on African safari - and a wall of carvings from around the globe, are all hers.

"I don't know how many times I've ended up carrying stuff on airplanes," he says.

Never mind, there's plenty of room downstairs. His motorbikes are displayed alongside contemporary New Zealand paintings.

"The stuff in the hotel, I buy absolutely on my own and with no influence from anyone else at all."

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It's a highly personal collection - it includes a painting by his daughter Meredith - and he believes he must have average tastes, since hotel guests seem to like it.

He admits it might not stand up to the judgment of "very sophisticated" art critics.

From a farming background, he says his "classic, cultured middle-class" parents, British immigrants George and Olive, instilled in him a love of the arts.

He fell in love with Brent Wong's surrealist works while at university and waited years to buy one. When one finally came up at auction, he pounced. He can't quite remember the price, but it was about $35,000.

The same year, he got his hands on a Robin White.

"They were the first two, I suppose, that you would say were reasonably expensive."

The other pieces have been bought on a whim. He describes himself as very price-conscious.

"I'm a bit mean actually . . . I don't like to pay the price they've got on it.

"I still get more excited buying a new car or a new motorcycle than I do a new artwork, but the art thing lasts a lot longer.

"You very rapidly lose interest in something with a steering wheel once you've driven it a few times."

Meanwhile, he has no idea how many properties he has owned over the years. His long history of property investment and development dates back to his student days, when he paid $12,500 for a house in Raroa Rd, not far from Victoria University. At the moment, he has the hotel, some apartments, and a couple of retail premises.

The hotel is Parkin's best known possession, a tangible reminder of his influence in the capital. Back in 1993, he saved it from the wrecking ball.

It had been destined for demolition to make way for Te Papa, but he had it moved across Cable St on railway tracks, the largest building in New Zealand to be relocated.

In 2006, he completed a $29-million, nine-storey expansion, a mix of hotel rooms and apartments.

The hotel has been a vehicle for his public profile. His rescue mission led to him being named Wellingtonian of the Year by The Evening Post in 1993.

In 1994, he was named the Wellington branch chairman for the newly formed ACT party. The following year, he was elected to Wellington City Council for the first time, and remained for three terms.

He may have left behind politics, but Parkin remains one of the capital's movers and shakers. He's no stranger to the social pages, though he insists he is quite shy.

He wields influence through his membership of arts boards, including as chairman of the St James Theatre Charitable Trust. He is also a benefactor or sponsor of many arts organisations, artists and motorcycle racers.

His contribution was significant enough to see him appointed to the board of Te Papa last year by Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson.

That puts him in a stronger position to achieve his intended legacy to the city. "I would really like to leave Wellington with a new National Art Gallery."

He would like to see the proposed "transition building" - intended to be built alongside Te Papa - house the national collection. He thinks it could be done by raising one-third of the $100 million needed from private benefactors, another third from the city, and the remainder from Te Papa.

He was initially attracted to local government by the prospect of "persuading others that my views were better than theirs".

He also wanted to help change the council's "very inefficient bureaucracy", and feels he achieved that.

He's affable and witty, but history shows he's also got bite to him. While a councillor, he brought a private prosecution for criminal nuisance against Tararua District Council and roading company Infracon, after his motorcycle slid out of control on loose gravel. He alleged they were negligent because there were no warning signs in his direction.

But he also offered to pay for the funeral of homeless Wellington identity Robert Jones - known as "Bucket Man" - in 2003. Parkin owns a painting of Jones.

He once considered standing for Parliament but it's no longer an ambition. "I did nine years as a councillor. It was enough to cure my need to be a politician."

But once you've had a taste of it, it's hard to give it up. He briefly contemplated a return to local government before the nominations closed in August. "I very nearly signed a cheque and put my name down. It was just a momentary lapse of sanity.

"I feel pretty strongly that the quality of councillors generally in Wellington is not as good as it should be.

What stopped him? "You don't go backwards. You don't revisit what's already been."

He still supports the ACT party. "I know the market both works and delivers better than any other system on this planet."

His views today are at the opposite end of the political spectrum from when he was a student. "I was absolutely passionate about supporting the underdog.

"I used to go along to support all the student meetings . . . It must have been at that stage or not long after that, I actually joined the Labour Party."

He later campaigned for Labour MP Fran Wilde.

After graduating from university in the mid-70s with bachelor of commerce and master of science degrees, he found work with a manufacturing business.

Two years later, he shifted to Development Finance Corporation. Initially employed as a financial analyst, he later convinced his bosses to open an office in San Francisco. He spent four years there, marketing New Zealand's export tax incentives to US businesses.

By the time he returned to Wellington in 1983, he had gone from being a "fervent communist" to a "fervent capitalist".

Becoming a father played a part. He had two children, now in their 20s, with his second wife, from whom he later separated. "Up until that stage it was easy to be altruistic, then you realise that you're actually responsible for three other people's lives."

For now, he has his own gallery in the hotel. But for the past couple of years, Parkin has been considering selling the business. In 2008, he called for expressions of interest. He got a few bites, but nothing panned out.

Is it still for sale? "Everything is always for sale. It's just a question of the size of the cheque."

He has a price in mind, but doesn't want to share it.

He is looking for a buyer more actively now, because he's worried about becoming senile.

"I now have glasses and wear hearing aids and it takes a long time to remember what I did last weekend."

What would he do if the right buyer and the right price came along? He would like to use his business experience to help charities.

"I've got a monstrous ego, like most people who have had anything to do with politics at all . . . Anyone who knows me knows that. I've always wanted to be the centre of attention."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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