Convention centre would have great potential

Last updated 08:27 12/08/2012
Warwick Isaacs
BLUEPRINT: Warwick Isaacs was charged with overseeing the 100 day plan.

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Much praise and some criticism has greeted the Christchurch blueprint, reaction that will continue for months as the details emerge. New issues will arise, but already a pattern is appearing in the responses: the blueprint's overall notions - a smaller CBD with precincts and anchor buildings and surrounded by a green belt - have strong approval; the main worry is that ratepayers will be required to pay for the stadium, metro sports facility, bus interchange, cricket oval, central library and convention centre.

In this rugby-keen city it is the stadium that is attracting the most comment - its roof, size, position and necessity - but it is the convention centre that has the greater potential to turn into a white elephant or a golden goose.

As the row about the Auckland convention centre has emphasised, such facilities do not make a profit. It is their associated benefits that justify their expensive building and running costs, as those using the facility buy accommodation, spend in shops, restaurants and theatres, and travel around the region. All that inflow of money would not occur had the convention centre not attracted visitors to the city, the argument goes. It is persuasive in that it has been verified in dozens of cities around the world and is prompting a race to enhance conference facilities in dozens more.

Australia's state capitals, for instance, are in a race among themselves to get convention centres that can attract international conferences with hundreds of delegates. Auckland is in the contest and now Christchurch has the chance to be.

What is proposed here is impressive - a convention centre stretching from the Square to Armagh St and from Colombo St to the Avon. It would contain two hotels and multiple auditoriums. The cost is unknown but would be substantial and its funder is still to be decided.

That issue of funding is likely to be most contentious. Ratepayers are cautious about taking on risky projects when houses and infrastructure are in need of urgent and expensive repair, and when other anchor buildings, such as the bus interchange, are more vital. If the city council shares that sentiment and refuses to fund the centre it cannot expect the Government to pick up the bill.

As in Auckland, the solution is to encourage business to take up the project, and that might be feasible because the attractions of the Christchurch venture are considerable. In the right commercial hands it could become a money-maker.

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The inclusion of two hotels in the building is an inducement to a corporation wanting to combine its accommodation- providing expertise with conference halls, restaurants and shops in one attractive venue. Add a casino to the mix and the attraction is even greater.

That must be making the Christchurch Casino's owners consider a shift into a bigger location in the centre of town, giving them room to expand and be associated with more facilities. The Christchurch Casino's part owner is SkyCity, which has the skills to make the proposed centre work well.

The prime minister has had his fingers burned in brokering such a deal in Auckland, with SkyCity, but that should not dissuade him from attempting the same for Christchurch. We need such high-powered intervention. The vision of what a convention centre here could achieve must be effectively sold.

On offer is something unique. The centre would be the dominating building in a sparkling new Christchurch, purpose-built in a beautiful setting. It would have no effective competition in the South Island and be one of the most sought-after venues in the nation. Located in the city that is the gateway to the island's tourist attractions, the convention centre would be attractive to international gatherings.

They seek state-of-the-art facilities in surroundings that offer delegates and their partners travel opportunities and diversions - things Christchurch and the South Island have in plenty.

If effectively built, funded and run, a convention centre could be a key influence in the Christchurch renaissance. It is worth pushing on with.

- The Press

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