Theatre sell-off sparks alarm

AARON LEAMAN AND ELTON SMALLMAN
Last updated 05:00 22/07/2014
Clarence St Theatre
BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ

UNCERTAIN FUTURE: Arts advocates fear Hamilton’s Clarence St Theatre, pictured, could be sold off.

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Arts advocates fear the curtain could be about to come down on Hamilton's theatre scene with the city council tipped to sell off Clarence Street Theatre by year's end.

Hamilton City Council staff will present a report to elected members next month recommending the sale of the 550-seat venue.

And the future of Hamilton's Founders Theatre looks equally uncertain, with a former theatre boss saying the 52-year-old theatre could be forced to shut temporarily unless urgent maintenance work was done.

In February, the council gifted The Meteor Theatre to One Victoria Trust as part of its review of the city's three council-owned theatres.

The council is also considering selling the land on which the Riverlea Theatre sits.

Jason Wade, past chairman of the Hamilton Operatic Society, predicted Clarence Street Theatre would be sold off by the end of the year and said it would have major implications for the city's arts groups.

"Council staff will say no decision has been made about Clarence Street, but the reality is it's going to be sold off," Wade said.

Hamilton Operatic Society is one of four tenants that hold a three-month lease at the site.

Wade said the society was not in a position to buy the theatre and preferred the council retain ownership and allow a trust to manage the building.

"If the council decides to sell Clarence Street to Pak'n Save, for example, and they demolish it for a carpark, then where does that leave us?

"Founders could also be closed within a year, potentially, because of maintenance issues and that would mean New Zealand's fourth-largest city did not have a [council-owned] theatre at all."

A council staff member, who declined to be named, told the Waikato Times he knew of at least three groups who were interested in buying Clarence Street Theatre.

Council acting general manager of events and economic development group Nicolas Wells said a recommendation to sell Clarence Street Theatre came out of the council's theatre review.

City councillor Rob Pascoe said the review showed the city's theatres were under-utilised.

The council-owned theatres posted a $1.45 million loss in the 2013-14 financial year.

Pascoe, who chairs the council's finance committee, said his preference was for council to sell Clarence Street Theatre and the land Riverlea Theatre sits on.

Although he hasn't formed an opinion on the future of Founders Theatre, Pascoe said the city needed a town hall.

Wells said staff will recommend a project to refurbish and upgrade Founders as a priority in the 2015-25 long-term plan.

But former councillor and arts advocate Jocelyn Marshall said Founders had passed its use-by date and did not believe more money should be spent on it.

She was at a performance of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra at Founders in 2010 when the building's roof began to leak.

"Our population is growing and I've said for years we need to replace Founders and build a town hall. Founders was a huge deal when it was built, but it's now too small and past its use-by date.

"We should open our eyes to a wider view of Hamilton and its cultural and academic life and building a town hall should be a priority."

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Hamilton deputy mayor Gordon Chesterman said Founders was no longer suitable for the city's needs, but did not believe there was money for a major new arts facility, the cost of which could range from $30m to $100m.

"I wouldn't float that to the public because we're already criticised for our levels of debt, but at some point in the future we will need to look seriously at Founders," Chesterman said.

"I think continuing normal maintenance on Founders is fine, but if we are talking about a $10m makeover, I would be asking is that a wise investment. Does it simply delay the day we have got to address the adequacy of the Founders Theatre?"

Wade said the idea of a new multimillion-dollar arts centre was "never going to happen".

"The idea of building a $100m arts centre by the river is lovely, but the reality is there isn't the money or the capacity for it to fly. Our existing theatres, while not ideal, are perfectly adequate and are easy to upgrade to suit the city's needs."

Wade said it was unrealistic to expect the city's theatres to produce a huge profit, but the recent success of the society's The Phantom of the Opera at the Founders Theatre showed there was an appetite for theatre productions in Hamilton.

- Waikato Times

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