Hamilton Hotel revealed as new theatre location
Roll out the red carpet – Waikato's new marquee theatre promises to be something special.
It will be smack bang in the middle of Hamilton's entertainment precinct, and a stone's throw from the river.
Other prime spots to replace the now-defunct Founders Theatre were swept aside in favour of the historic Hamilton Hotel building on the corner of Victoria Street and Sapper Moore-Jones Place.
The conversation started more than a year ago, when the doors at Founders Theatre shut due to health and safety concerns.
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Talk of a new $55 million theatre got the city guessing – would it be on the same site, at Victoria on the River, the former Municipal Pools, Hamilton Gardens, or the University of Waikato?
And Waikato people got their answer on Wednesday afternoon, when the hotel site was proposed by Hamilton City Council and philanthropic organisation Momentum Waikato – partners in the project.
THE HAMILTON HOTEL SITE
The privately owned site currently has a range of restaurants and bars and is bordered by Embassy Park (with the Riff Raff statue) on one side and Sapper Moore-Jones Place (formerly Marlborough Place) on the other, and runs down to the river. A new theatre development would look to restore the facade of the old Hamilton Hotel, which is recognised as a heritage building.
A long list of 25 possible theatre sites was whittled down to four, including Garden Place and the Municipal Pools.
But the hotel site stood out for several reasons, including its links to the river and main street, proximity to bars and restaurants, and access options.
Momentum Waikato Community Foundation chairman Leonard Gardner and Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel chairman Dr Julian Elder briefed the Hamilton City Council on Wednesday about the recommended site.
"This location will transform the region and city through recognising history, revitalising the CBD, supporting hospitality offerings, and enhancing connection with the Waikato River," Gardner said.
"This is a generational opportunity to create a significant community asset for our wider region – not just Hamilton – and, for the sake of the future generations, we need to make sure we do it well."
Momentum hopes nearby businesses will "basically join the party" to give the area a lift.
Parking has been one of the early community questions, and Gardner said there are several nearby parking buildings.
Momentum wants to hear the community's thoughts, including whether they expect on-site parking.
The Hamilton Hotel site is rich in history - including twice being engulfed by flames.
It was "the centre of Hamilton life" under the operation of the Gwynnes in 1907, according to a report by The Observer, and the Queen and Prince Phillip stayed there for a night on their 1953 Coronation tour.
The site has also held the Left Bank and Embassy Theatres, and now the stage is set for a new one.
FROM UNEXPECTED CLOSURE TO NEW THEATRE BUILD
It will fill the gap created when the existing Founders Theatre had to close suddenly in March 2016.
An independent assessment of the Founders flying system indicated it was at risk of failure, and the building was later found to be earthquake-prone.
It's now essentially mothballed, council's general manager of venues, tourism, and major events group Sean Murray said.
"It's fair to say it's not in good condition and we need to take a fairly realistic view of its future."
The Momentum proposal would bring the new theatre into the heart of the central city, and those behind the project are talking about a transformational theatre to be the head tenant of a creative precinct.
It is estimated to cost $55m but Hamilton City Council is getting a hand with the finance in the form of a $25m contribution from Momentum Waikato.
Council's contribution would be capped at $30m, plus GST, and it would approach other funders to help make up that amount.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
But thespians and their fans will have to wait to hear how the theatre may look.
The concept design for the site and business case for the theatre will be formally presented to Hamilton City Council at its August 24 meeting and will then go out to public consultation.
Councillors should be saying yes or no in October or November but the recommended location ticks a few good boxes for Hamilton City Council, Murray said.
Momentum took the wider city into account when choosing a site, he said, looking at "the big picture, not just the theatre picture".
If the construction of the new theatre goes ahead on the Hamilton Hotel site, it will contribute to some of the Council's strategic aims for the city, he said – particularly the River Plan and the Central City Transformation Plan.
"We like the idea that the theatre could be accessed from the river," he said.
Murray said although the council has committed, in principle, $30 million to the project, there is a lot more work to be done before it starts.
The group overseeing the project is the independent Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel, which has has brought in expertise, including from international theatre design consultancy Charcoalblue.
Charcoalblue has spent months talking with stakeholders and user groups throughout the region and investigating possible locations around Hamilton, governance panel chair Dr Julian Elder said.
Now they want feedback on the recommended site, either through Momentum Waikato or the public consultation process from September. Members of the public are also welcome to sign up for regular updates from Momentum Waikato.
Momentum and Charcoalblue are now working on "the finer details of how this theatre might look, right down to parking, accessibility, and dealing with equipment deliveries that you'd expect for a theatre site," Elder said.
THE OWNERS AND THE DONORS
The Hamilton Hotel site is owned by the Plaw family and has a long and strong arts and theatre history.
"We are fully supportive of the recommended new theatre location and look forward to working with the theatre project team to create the best outcome for the Waikato region and Hamilton CBD," Spokesman Mitch Plaw said.
Momentum Waikato was approached last year by several generous individuals and organisations interested in contributing to a new theatre through Momentum.
That said, there will be more fundraising to come, Gardner said.
The full Bulk and Location report compiled by Charcoalblue, with rankings of all the sites considered, is available on the Momentum Waikato website.