Editorial: Embarrassing U-turn for Wellington convention centre

An artist's impression of what the new 165-bed Hilton Hotel and conference centre would have looked like.
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An artist's impression of what the new 165-bed Hilton Hotel and conference centre would have looked like.

OPINION: 

What a shambles. After a year of exuberant announcements and "artist's impression" sketches, Wellington's convention centre has been thrown into chaos.

The proposed site, on a car park opposite Te Papa, now cannot be secured. A second option, on a port-owned wharf in Wellington Harbour, is being swiftly touted as an alternative.

This is a mess and an embarrassment for everyone involved. Construction of the $100 million complex, including the centre and a five-star, 165-bed Hilton Hotel, was once supposed to start this month.

In July, Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery said the business case had been scrutinised by top auditing firms. "For goodness' sake, we've assured this to death."

By November, Mayor Celia Wade-Brown and her council had voted to spend $4m a year leasing the centre from developer Mark Dunajtschik.

This newspaper backed the idea as a boost for the city - "wholly welcome if it lives up to its promises". Those promises are now in question. If the building's location is so easily mucked with, what else is up in the air? Its size? Its cost? The ratepayer contribution?

That would not be surprising. Look at Auckland's convention centre. Owner SkyCity, citing soaring construction costs, now has the gall to ask for public funding - on top of earlier, maddening Government concessions around its number of pokie machines.

That project needs a complete rethink - as the Treasury has laid out, there are reasons against it, including flat international conference numbers.

Wellington's centre will need a similarly searching interrogation. The council hurriedly announces its "exciting" new waterfront site. But how much attention can this site have been given, when councillors were voting on the previous plan as recently as last month? It was that plan which received engineering and design work, a risk mitigation assessment and a business case. It was that project which went out for public feedback - not this week's sudden change of course.

The Cable St site was set to open in mid-2017. The council hopes the wharf replacement will be finished "only a matter of months later". That's more airy optimism: waterfront developments in Wellington have often been bitterly contested, not least the scuttled Hilton hotel once proposed for Queens Wharf.

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Council leaders and Dunajtschik, whose bleak year has included a court rejection of his bid to demolish the Harcourts building, have lined up to praise the new site. The council says its deal is essentially unchanged.

This is a provocation. The harbour site is a new risk. The Auckland example shows how easily costs can blow out. The abrupt U-turn over the location inspires only doubt.

Councillors will get another vote on the new idea next year. They will need to weigh it suspiciously.

They will need answers, especially to why the Cable St site was not pinned down.

The centre is one of the council's eight "big ideas", worth nearly $30m to the local economy. This botch-up is very much the council's problem.

 - The Dominion Post

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