$16m to fix the Founders

Hamilton's arts community is urging the council not to give up on it despite a major review of the city's struggling civic theatres recommending a $15.9 million upgrade for Founders Theatre, selling the Clarence Street theatre and gifting the Meteor theatre building to a community trust.

Hamilton's "tired, sub-standard and ageing" theatres are in desperate need of cash and Mayor Julie Hardaker says the review will force the city to consider how highly it values the arts - and whether it is prepared to pay.

Founders Theatre's shortcomings have seen it fall off the schedules of some major touring acts, and community groups have long complained about the cost of access to the city's theatres, even at preferential rates of hire.

But Ross Blair, chairman of Hamilton Civic Choir, said any investment in the city's theatres would be money well spent.

"Any investment you make in the arts, there is always return to the community - but you can't add it up in dollars and cents."

Hamilton Operatic Society chairman Jason Wade said it would be a shame to see the Clarence Street Theatre, originally Trust Bank Theatre, sold as it was built by the community for the community.

"Hamiton City Council purchased the theatre from Hamilton Operatic for $1 and a portion of the society's debt at the time. It would be offered back at $3.8m.

"Not a bad profit for just over ten years," he wrote on Waikato Times' Facebook page.

All three theatres effectively run at a loss of $2.3m each year, require major upgrades and have falling patronage.

Founders was labelled "tired" and its back of house facilities "sub-standard".

The review report followed wide consultation with the city's arts sector, and "virtually all" told reviewers that the status quo was unacceptable.

The review, completed by The Stafford Group, recommends upgrading the Founders in three stages, gifting the Meteor to a community trust and selling Clarence St, redirecting two-thirds of its use to the Founders.

Consolidating the theatres would carve $845,000 in the first year from the theatres' running costs, and would over ten years save the council $8.7m.

The detail of the review demonstrates the extent of the challenge facing the city: last year Founders' cost of service deficit was $1.7m, almost $800,000 more than the year before. In the past four years its patronage dropped 30 per cent, and Clarence St is used just 7 per cent of the time.

The review also shows the theatres are expensive compared with others. Benchmarking against 40 theatres across Australasia showed Founders' commercial hire rates were the third most expensive, and its community rates the second highest, in both examples behind Sydney's Angel Place.

But the challenges facing the theatres already have city leaders casting about for some financial help.

Ms Hardaker was pleased the review had not shied away from Founders Theatre, which she said Hamilton people had strong emotional ties to.

"The community needs to decide how much it values the arts. If it does, the appropriate budget needs to be allocated. It's about priorities," she said.

The draft report will be opened for public feedback and come back before the council in April, but politicians say there will be no quick decisions.


The theatres' net cost is expected to be $2.3m this financial year

Theatres' average annual income down by $217,000 from 2009-2012

Council expenditure on theatres for the same period rose by $933,000

From 2009-2012 Clarence St was used an average 87 days each year

The theatres are used just 36 per cent of the time – Clarence St only 7 per cent.

Waikato Times