Kelvyn Eglinton, Momentum Waikato Chief Executive

It was with much joy that Momentum Waikato was finally able to declare the Waikato Regional Theatre project as ‘Live’, following the Prime Minister’s 31 October announcement at Embassy Park of our successful Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) application.

Since that pivotal moment, the outpouring of support and well-wishes we’ve received from across our community has been quite humbling.

But we still have much immediate work to do to confirm the project’s budget, the pricing on its design details and its resource consent, ahead of getting underway with construction in the first quarter of 2020.

The Waikato Regional Property Trust, which will own the Theatre on behalf of the community, will soon be completing the land transfers, tendering and contracting the build, setting up the operating companies to deliver shows, educational programs and promotions, and beginning the search for an inaugural General Manager.

Meanwhile the development team for the adjacent new Victoria Developments hotel slated for the street side of the site will be finalising its design and engaging with prospective accommodation providers.

A two-year build followed by a ‘soft opening’ phase while systems are being commissioned and staff trained mean the grand premiere opening of the Waikato Regional Theatre is currently scheduled for April 2022.

It is a good time to revisit the ‘why’ of this transformational project.

The Founders Theatre was closed due to safety concerns in 2016 and subsequent estimates had the basic repair bill at upwards of $30 million. After public consultation, it was determined that if the Hamilton City Council could cap its contribution to $30 million, then building a new multi-purpose performing arts centre would be preferable to refurbishing an end-of-life building that did not meet modern standards for acoustics, sightlines, stage space, flexibility of operations or the range of performance types able to be well hosted.

That is when Momentum Waikato offered to take on the mission of coordinating the planning and development of the new theatre as a transformational project for Hamilton, its CBD and the wider Waikato. The process that followed included the consideration of 25 different potential sites across the city, tested against a list of primary and secondary criteria shaped by public feedback and the city’s plans and policies.

Some have queried the resulting selection of the old Hamilton Hotel site at the south end of Victoria Street, asking why we wouldn’t just rebuild on the Founders site. If the new facility was simply to continue to provide the same functions and role as the Founders that may have worked, but the new location will achieve so much more for the city and region.

The chosen site takes up the entire block between the Riff Raff Statue in Embassy Park and Sapper Moore-Jones Place, from the main street down to the river reserve - it is larger area than the Founders’ footprint, with enough room for both the Theatre and the adjoining boutique hotel.

This development will turn the central city to the river and revitalise the ‘South End’ as a full spectrum hospitality zone. It will be a significant upgrade for the Hamilton and the Waikato’s offering to both regional visitors and international tourists, a prospect which has already led to the new hotel next door being planned and the potential for a second in the city now progressing. It will provide a venue that will catalyse the creative sector’s growth across the region.

Most importantly, we are working with mana whenua and iwi on cultural design integration, so the Theatre is a place of welcome that tells the stories of the Awa and the heritage of the site.

The economic return from both the Waikato Regional Theatre and the adjoining hotel will be around $13 million per annum, with 170 construction jobs in the first two years and an estimated 48 new permanent full-time jobs and 30 part-time jobs once both are open.

The joint capital development of $103.9 million - $73.9 million for the Theatre and $30 million for the hotel - is a prime example of how a segmented public commitment can prompt private investment and further economic activity, the very purpose for which the PGF was established.

Parking is often mentioned as an issue with the planned site. There is in fact the same amount of car parks available within the immediate area as at Founders, but with far more lighting and security. When we have spoken to people and present to groups, it becomes apparent that the concerns are less about parking per se and mostly about access for those who have difficulty walking any distance. So yes, there will be drop-off and pull-in spaces and we are looking at how office parking being available in the evening and shuttles from car park buildings might play a role.

The Waikato Regional Theatre is a true partnership approach to delivering civic assets and a model that we believe can be applied across the country. The mixture of local Council budgeting (Hamilton City Council $25 million and Waikato Regional Council $5 million), central Government support via the PGF ($12 million), charitable funding via Trust Waikato ($15 million), New Zealand Lotteries ($4 million) and local philanthropic and corporate gifting ($8 million) has got us to the starting line. Now just the last $5 million needs to be found, which will be doing via commercial sponsorships and our upcoming ‘Share the Stage’ community fundraising campaign.

If you want us to present to your group or organisation on the Waikato Regional Theatre, its delivery model and/or Momentum Waikato’s core work of delivering a regional endowment fund of $300 million in thirty years, please make contact with us.

Thank for your support Waikato!