The Founders Theatre, Hamilton’s venerable flagship performance venue, was closed by its owner the Hamilton City Council for safety reasons in March 2016. The absence of an equivalent venue was immediately felt by the city and region.
The cost of repairing the Founders to restore it to use with no significant modernisation was estimated at $25 million, which was at the limit of what the Council could afford.
Momentum Waikato therefore approached the Council in July 2016 and offered to manage a robust process to find the best outcome for creating a new Waikato Regional Theatre (WRT), with the intent that the sum required to simply repair Founders could instead be the cornerstone deposit for fundraising for this whole new modern performing arts centre.
The offer was accepted and soon after the Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel was independently appointed to plan the project. Its first task, in partnership with international theatre designers Charcoalblue, was a strategic review of potential sites, which was completed and delivered as the WRT Location Report in May 2017.
The preferred location was identified as the Hamilton Hotel site on the South End of Victoria St, at the heart of the city’s ‘creative precinct’.
The 25 sites considered had included upper Grantham St, the Sonning Carpark on River Rd and Garden Place , as well as other riverbank sites in the South End. The Founders site was carefully reviewed, as was utilising land at the University of Waikato, however the Hamilton Hotel site on Victoria Street was deemed the best able to achieve the established goals of the community.
In August 2017 Momentum Waikato Chair Leonard Gardner and Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel Chair Dr Julian Elder presented the Hamilton City Council with a comprehensive feasibility study, the WRT Phase One Design Report from Charcoalblue and NZ civic architects Jasmax. It recommended, and described the parameters and considerations for, a world - class theatre capable of hosting the international - calibre performing arts events the city and region deserve.
This initial scoping document was then the basis for a series of public and stakeholder consultation meetings organised by Creative Waikato and The Stakeholder Agency from August to November 2017. Feedback on functionality, accessibility, location and the benefits to the wider community was recorded, and just over 200 people then made formal written submissions, all of which were subsequently published in the WRT Consultation Summary.
As part of that process Andy Hayles, Charcoalblue’s London Managing Partner, presented to a well-attended Waikato Chamber of Commerce breakfast at The Atrium in October 2017. The Charcoalblue team have worked on a vast array of theatres worldwide, including the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and Royal Opera House, as showcased by Andy’s WRT presentation slideshow.
The consultation then informed changes made to the theatre plans in Charcoalblue’s subsequent WRT Concept Design Report and Presentation released in March 2018, the most significant being extending the seating capacity to 1300. This report also provided the first detailed floor plans, elevations and more detailed concepts images, and costed the theatre build and kit-out at $73million.
In October 2017, during the design consultation process, the theatre project received its first formal financial commitment, with Trust Waikato granting $15 million. Following the delivery of the WRT Concept Design Report and a presentation to the councils, the Hamilton City Council formally committed $25 million and the Waikato Regional Council $5 million in June 2018, at the culmination of their respective Ten-Year Plan processes.
A number of significant contributions have since been made and, as of January 2019, Momentum Waikato’s talks with potential commercial sponsors, philanthropic donors and central government funders are well advanced.
The WRT Preliminary Design Report from Charcoalblue and Jasmax was completed in August 2018, which provides the comprehensive and detailed plans, and elements such as geotech testing, required to progress to consenting and tendering, both of which will happen in early 2019.
The ultimate owner and governor of the new theatre, the Waikato Regional Property Trust, was formed and its trustees appointed in October 2018. Among its first tasks is creating the operating company, which will be the vehicle for venue management, artistic programme direction and event promotion.
As the beginning of 2019, the Waikato Regional Theatre project is poised to move off the page and into reality. Assuming fundraising, consenting and tendering proceed according to plan, the first site preparations will happen in the latter half of 2019, and the theatre is expected to open in late 2021.