Momentum Waikato is driving the new Waikato Regional Theatre which is more than just a ‘nice to have’ facility.

The time is right for Hamilton City and the Waikato region to build a top-quality performance venue.

We have top-level sporting facilities, including Waikato Stadium and the Avantidrome.

It’s now time to invest into our arts and culture, and importantly provide transformation to our city heart.

Waikato is at a tipping point. Hamilton is the country’s fourth largest city, and the Waikato has the third largest economy in the country, serving a population closing in on half a million people. Within a 90-minute drive of Hamilton city we can reach more than half the country’s population.

There is a buzz about living and working in Hamilton City, and a sense of pride in what our region can offer. We are a growing economic powerhouse, with a smart, driven population of people doing great things across a variety of sectors.

People from around New Zealand and the world are choosing to move to the Waikato because it’s a great place to work and live, with quality education opportunities, and a strong connection to culture through the people of Waikato Tainui and many other diverse communities.

From the new Ruakura inland port, to the development of city suburbs, Hamilton is in a growth phase. We are now a vibrant city of more than 165,000 people, an increase of about 20,000 from six years ago.

The new Waikato Regional Theatre is part of the region’s coming of age, and we owe it to our wider community, our creative and performing arts community, and the next generation, to realise this project.

The theatre will be fantastic world-class facility that will benefit people in the region now and in the future. When it opens in 2021 it will be able to host touring musicals and dramas, locally produced theatre and dance, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal New Zealand Ballet. It will also be suitable for community groups and performance.

For Waikato children, it will offer a rich training ground, helping produce the next generation of world-class performers, stage hands, and lighting and theatre technicians. It will be a hub for the creative arts sector and provide education streams for people wishing to develop careers in the performing arts, as well as being a centre to showcase our cultural celebrations.

Consultants Charcoalblue and architects JASMAX have imagined a new city centre which will transform Hamilton’s CBD, supporting Hamilton City Council’s visionary River Plan.

The Waikato Regional Theatre will be built on the site of the historic Embassy Theatre on Victoria Street, facing the Waikato River. It will form the basis of a new arts precinct, with a public art gallery, retail space and lifestyle hotel on site. The cost-sharing made available by the co-location of a theatre with a commercial operation ensures its financial credibility and will activate the location with theatre performers, tourists and people enjoying the theatre and nearby hospitality. This area will also include shared public spaces and link with nearby restaurants, bars and cafes as well as areas such as Victoria on the River and Waikato Museum.

The concept designs capture the beauty and energy of what this could mean for Hamilton and the wider Waikato region. A vision of a streetscape, not unlike something in Europe, will attract people from around the wider region and rejuvenate the central city.

I’m calling on people across the Waikato to let their representatives know how important this theatre is for us as a grown-up city.

At the moment Hamilton City Council is taking submissions on its draft 10-Year Plan, and the future of the theatre hangs in the balance. If you support the Waikato Regional Theatre, please write a submission in support of it before the April 30 deadline.

There are a lot of naysayers, but I believe there are many supporters who do want their councils to help fund the theatre, and I’m calling on those people to speak up.

Detractors of the project say the theatre isn’t big enough, and there isn’t adequate parking or accessibility. They say “resurrect Founders”. They say a new theatre is too expensive to build, and an unnecessary luxury for the ratepayers of the city and region.

But to go forward, let’s take a step back.

When the Founders Theatre was closed for safety reasons and then found to have seismic issues, Hamilton City Council ran a public consultation on whether to demolish, rebuild or make safe the building. The response from the community was strongly to build new.

Subsequently an independent report showed the cost to strengthen the existing Founders was an estimated $30 million - not to upgrade or refurbish, simply to make safe that which already exists.

It was at that point that Momentum Waikato identified that by leveraging investment from donors and philanthropic agencies, we could not only provide a theatre but make a meaningful and powerful transformation to the city and region.

And so, we established an independent governance panel, commissioned international consultants Charcoalblue and ran an independent and community engagement process that identified the most suitable site to host a theatre, provide transformation, and leverage other investment and projects.

These include donor investment to the Ferrybank development with Council, a potential walking and cycling bridge, and a walkway to link with the recently completed Victoria on the River park.

So where are we now in response to some of the criticism?

Theatre size: Over the past few months Charcoalblue has led a public consultation process, talking to people and organisations around the country about the Waikato Regional Theatre. One concern was theatre size. We listened to your feedback, and the new concept designs have increased the seat numbers in the theatre from 1100 to 1300. This means the theatre can accommodate the NZSO (our largest theatre user) and can also be customised for smaller, more intimate spoken performances.

Parking: This is a topic people are worried about, so we’ve looked at the issue of parking in the Hamilton CBD. Our count of carparks shows there are 2200 parks within short walking distance of the theatre, including those in parking buildings and nearby streets.

We know it can be challenging to find parking even to have dinner in town, but the reality is that there are a number of parking buildings 5-10 minutes’ walk away, and there are plenty of disabled parks around. Just like an evening out to a restaurant, you might expect to walk a short distance to the theatre (stopping for food and drink on-route, at one of the many fine eateries in the CBD!).

In the future, a proposed walking and cycle bridge across the river from Memorial Park in Hamilton East could open up further parking options. People can use public transport, catch an Uber or a taxi, and in the future, hopefully even take a water taxi along the Waikato River to the CBD, rather than drive a car. Recent events in town, such as the Chinese Lantern Festival and the Rugby Sevens warm-up party show the city can cope with large numbers of people entering and exiting the CBD.

Accessibility: People have told us they were concerned about accessibility. People walking up to the theatre will have dual access – on one side from Victoria Street’s Embassy Park, home of the Riff Raff Statue, and from Sapper Moore-Jones Place (formerly Marlborough Place) on the other side. Equipment vehicles will use the Sapper Moore-Jones Place access. We’ve tested it out with the NZSO’s largest trucks, and we know the vehicles and equipment needs of all theatre users can be accommodated onsite, with appropriate traffic management support.

Founders Theatre: The Founders Theatre served Hamilton and the Waikato region well for many years. Built in 1962, it holds a special place in many people’s hearts. However, Founders had to close for safety reasons in March 2016. Independent reports have shown

it is not safe or fit for repair. It cannot be what it was, and there is now a huge gap in our arts and cultural landscape – one that desperately needs filling.

Some people have proposed rebuilding on the site of Founders, but the costs don’t add up – a $30 million investment from councils gets only a “safe” Founders, not an upgraded Founders.

Cost to ratepayers: The Waikato Regional Theatre will cost about $73 million to build. The cost to Hamilton ratepayers is capped at $25 million, spread over three years. An additional $5 million is being sought from regional councils around the Waikato. Momentum Waikato is carrying all the risk and will manage the entire project and source remaining funds. It’s this kind of partnership that ensures Hamilton residents will get an amazing community facility for less cost and risk.

Consider the top assets we now have in the region that are the envy of many: our rugby stadium, the Avantidrome and Claudelands.

The new theatre will be another asset to enjoy long into the future. For $25 million, Hamilton and the Waikato gets a world-class theatre that puts us firmly on the culture map, with the balance invested by parties other than ratepayers.

Hamilton City Council will not own or operate the theatre. Once the theatre opens in 2021, Hamilton City Council will provide an annual asset maintenance grant of $1.1 million annually over 20 years and there will be a further $300,000 from the Waikato Regional Council to ensure the required maintenance and asset protection is implemented and not exposed to the vagaries of future political financial decisions.

Most people want to live in a city and region that supports the growth of the arts, culture and its citizens. Our community wants a world-class theatre complex that is as good as any in Auckland or Wellington, or London or New York – and one that will provide generations of Waikato people the opportunity for rich experiences in the performing arts, from dance to musicals, drama to opera.

Once built, it will be a facility that can host international touring shows and stars, as well as local community performances and regional theatre. What a wonderful opportunity for our city’s children, to stand on such a stage.

For me, the new theatre is about the Waikato region coming-of-age.

The people of the Waikato deserve to have this facility and these opportunities, without having to travel 125 kilometres up the road amid terrible traffic, roadworks and stay in costly hotels to simply access arts and cultural experiences.