Falling numbers prompt shake-up

The Dunedin Chinese Garden could be in for a shake-up as visitor numbers continue to decline, leaving ratepayers to foot more of the bill.

Figures released to the Otago Daily Times yesterday showed the number of visitors has plummeted since the garden opened four years ago, from 83,000 in the first year to just 28,000 in the 2011-12 year.

The decline had contributed to annual budget shortfalls that have together cost ratepayers $1.02 million, due to a council agreement to cover operating costs unable to be met by the garden.

Garden manager Margo Reid said the drop-off in visitors reflected tough economic conditions, a decline in tourism and the closure of the nearby Otago Settlers Museum, among other factors.

However, she and garden staff were "working really hard" to trim operating costs, which were budgeted to drop more than $100,000 in the 2012-13 year.

Despite that, other costs were rising and the garden expected to record another loss, of $585,000, in the coming year, she confirmed.

That followed a $180,000 loss recorded in the 2011-12 year, even after staff costs, fresh water consumption and other expenditure were trimmed, she said.

Asked yesterday if the garden could eventually cover its costs, Ms Reid said that would be "crystal ball-gazing".

"It would be wrong of us to start making claims like that at this time," she said.

Instead, councillors would be asked to consider changes to the way the facility was run that could improve the financial results, she said.

A report expected to be presented to the council's next community development committee meeting would discuss options, including a possible merger with the Otago Settlers Museum, to cut costs, she confirmed.

The document was a long-awaited response to a report in February last year, which had prompted councillors to ask for an investigation into improving the garden's financial results.

Ms Reid would not divulge further details of the latest report until councillors had seen it, but said other initiatives to boost returns were included.

Committee chairman Cr Bill Acklin told the ODT the garden's initial budgets had proven to be a "stab in the dark", but had since been adjusted to more "realistic" levels.

However, Cr Acklin said it was always expected the garden would not make a profit, although he refused to describe that as a loss.

"It can't be seen as a loss. This was never going to make a profit," he said.

Cr Acklin believed the garden remained a good deal for Dunedin, helping promote the city and solidify sister city relations with Shanghai.

It should be compared with the Dunedin Botanic Garden, which cost the council much more each year to run, he said.

"The ratepayers' contribution is what we do, as a city, to have these sorts of things," he said.

Plans for the traditional scholars' garden were first announced by Dunedin historian Dr Jim Ng in 2007, as a gift from the Chinese community to the city.

The Dunedin Chinese Garden Trust was formed the following year to develop the idea, headed by city councillor, and later mayor, Peter Chin.

The trust secured funding needed to build the $7.7 million garden from the Government, Community Trust of Otago (now Otago Community Trust) and the Chinese community, as well as the council.

The council agreed to contribute $1 million and land on which to build the garden, as well as agreeing to cover operating costs.

Estimates of what those operating costs would end up costing the council varied as the project was debated, ranging from $160,000 a year to $500,000 a year.

The garden was prefabricated in Shanghai, then shipped to Dunedin and constructed by workers from Shanghai. It opened in July 2008.

It has earned awards and plaudits since, and despite the financial difficulties, Cr Acklin believed it was in a good position to capitalise on extra foot traffic generated by changes planned or under way in the vicinity.

That included reopening the Otago Settlers Museum late this year, the redevelopment of the former Dunedin Prison and warehouse precinct, and proposed changes to the one-way street network.

"The Chinese Garden is right in the middle of it," he said.

Ms Reid said some savings had been found by trimming staff costs, scrapping Wednesday night openings during winter, and reducing fresh water consumption in the garden's pond.

However, maintenance costs had been "higher than expected" and council internal charges had also increased, she said.

Any further moves to boost revenue would also need to tread a "fine line" to protect the authenticity of the garden, she believed.

However, it had already enjoyed some success. There had been 13,841 repeat visits since opening day and the community and school holiday events, together with weddings and the garden's gift shop were providing popular.

Delegations from China had also visited the garden, but claims it would provide a Chinese tourism boost for Dunedin had proved unfounded, with "very minimal" numbers of Chinese tourists visiting, she said.

"They are very polite, but they say 'we can see all this at home'," she said.


Chinese Garden attendance?

Its a pity that the public attendance at the Chinese Gardens has not been reported month by month. I am fairly sure that such reporting would show justification for closing the Gardens during the 4 Winter months at least.

Chinese Garden

I like the gardens but those figures are scary - they're haemorrhaging big money. The re-opening of the Settlers museum will surely help but more than tinkering at the edges is going to be needed.

Chinese Garden 'asset'

The problem with the Chinese Garden is the very high cost of ownership. Just look at the DCC budget for this asset. It is outrageously high - there are too many staff, very high DCC "service" charges, and ridiculous maintenance costs. If this "asset" was privately owned, the management strategy would be far more effective.
"Service" costs and "maintenance" charges should be closely scrutinised by elected councillors.
I suggest that the Garden should be closed for 4 months in winter to reduce costs, because visitor numbers do not warrant opening the facility. [Abridged]

Wrong lot

'Kris' might be interested to know that the factor he/she mentions almost as an item of humour, is very much rooted in fact. The Chinese Garden was conceived in Shanghai, and 'Shanghai' had considerable input into the detail of how and where it would be built.
No part of the Chinese Garden has anything whatever to do with the culture of our Chinese pioneer gold miners. They came from the South of the country and did not even speak the same language as those whose input into the Chinese Garden overrode all other considerations.
The pioneer miners, spoke Cantonese, (not Mandarin as in Shanghai), and to all intents and purposes, China being the size it is, might as well have been from another country. [Abridged]


Chinese garden

Nice to have council projects adding to the burden carried by ratepayers for such non essential projects that don't pay. It simply continues to amaze!

The attitude displayed by the city councillor named in the above article to yet more council debt. Ratepayers are just a endless resource to be tapped it would seem. This current council now has to learn to live within its reducing income.

Close this garden until times improve and it can pay its way if that is possible. Nice to have and non essential looks set to bankrupt the DCC if cost cutting, poorer council services and possible asset sales don't keep the wolf from the door over the next few years.

Money-draining entities

You certainly made me laugh skillo.  You think a money-draining entity ie. the Chinese Gardens should have been built in a money-draining entity ie. The Botanical Gardens. Interesting.

Do nothing


However, I do have a motto to recommend for the DCC: "We will do anything for our customers - except make a loss" 

Nobody out of their tree in the Chinese Garden

Please don't relocate to the Botanic Gardens.

A rickshaw service

Thats actually a good idea - in the weekends instead of cars hooning up the Octagon. That is a very entrepreneurial idea. Rickshaw from pub to pub.  An excellent way to bring colour and vibrancy to our night life.

The idea that the Chinese Garden is not an asset to our community is nonsense, and to use the arguement that Chinese Gardens are for the rich and have nothing to do with the Chinese of yesteryear are just more Dunedin ideas "of a do nothing approach".  

I am sick of English gardens. [Abridged]


Garden numbers

I would love to see a day-by-day analysis of the Chinese Garden visitor numbers. The 2011-2012 attendance averages 538 per week year round. Yeah right! There are many days when I observe a complete absence of visitor cars outside. Certainly never any buses. Are 538 visitors all walking to the Gardens?

I also note that maintenance costs had been "higher than expected" and council internal charges have also increased. The contracted maintenance costs have been extremely high for a new facility from the start. Is this an effort to boost income by another DCC company?  


Garden with no hint of poverty

Kris sees the Chinese Garden as "an homage to our Chinese in this community", adding "I in the future want to know of their legacy."
The Chinese who came here in the early days were not wealthy business people like many of today's immigrants. They were in the main hard working poor folk, hoping to make enough money to support their families back home and eventually return, or possibly bring a wife here.
The Chinese Garden is, I believe, an authentic example of Chinese culture. But it is the culture of the upper class rich, and as such it is as irrelevant as the Eiffel Tower to the life-experience of the men who came here in the early days.
Perhaps it is meant to whitewash the poverty and discrimination that was their reality, making it look as if those men were comfortable chaps who came here for some jolly OE in the gold fields. The truth is far different, and the truth is what we should honour. [Abridged]



You meet all costs, then we'll talk.

This is a ridiculous enterprise that was doomed to fail from the start, pushed through by those who liked vanity projects to satisfy their own egos.  It has almost nothing to do with the early Chinese community in Dunedin.

PS Your suggestion of tea ceremonies and selling chinese lanterns is akin to the "veiled racist comments" that you complain about from others.  Maybe there should be a rickshaw service as well? 


Run this place with restricted hours, like the Gas museum, using volunteers - Peter Chin should be able to round up a few helpers!


The Chinese Garden should've been built in the Botanic Gardens instead of being a standalone money-draining entity. [Abridged]

DCC blew it

Hock it off or convert it to Otago Settlers Museum car parking. This was always the wrong location for a Chinese garden. If built in or near the botanic gardens I would visit 'maybe' once a year, although that would be a strain since the design of the garden fails to excite or impress me at all - and that's not the fault of the artisans who built it. It's poorly conceptualised for the Dunedin City context and potential audience. Boring!

Voluntary work

Couldn't Peter Chin get down there and do some voluntary work to keep costs down?

Haven't been there yet!

I've been meaning to go to the Gardens ever since it opened, but for some reason I haven't yet. Maybe it was the entry fee and not knowing if it would be worth that price or not, or maybe i just keep forgetting about going there, or something else?

I suspect a lot of other people in the city are in the same situation as me. I will get there eventually! 

Who OK'd the Chinese Garden in the first place?

"Cr Acklin said it was always expected the garden would not make a profit, although he refused to describe that as a loss."  He'd be torturing facts to describe it as the third alternative, break-even, and it is obviously not something that could be called a popular amenity used by many thousands of Dunedin people, such as use the library, Museums, botanic gardens and playing (sports and children's) areas.  

Whose idea was it, who voted for spending our rates money on it in perpetuity, and is there a public record of any dissenting voices trying in vain to prevent this unnecessary extravagance?  In the build-up to the next election we need to have full information of who participated most energetically in getting Dunedin into the red, and who tried hard to keep the DCC's accounts on the healthy side of the ledger.

Put the thing out of its misery

Of course Chinese tourists can see this sort of thing, and much better, at home. Reading the original proposal, this was intended to bring tourists to Dunedin. I doubt that it has brought even one here; Asian or otherwise. This whole thing was ridiculously optimistic, as was the unwanted Stadium. Even the council's own advisers expressed doubt when these gardens were proposed. Let's just hope that the current bunch of councillors learn something from this, and remember it's not their own money they're spending.  

As far as trying to cheer us up by quoting repeat visitors, it won't wash. The only way a visitor can be identified as a return is by the annual pass they present at the gate. An annual pass costs little more than  one visit. I purchased one and used it perhaps six times. I presume I counted as six returns. I went regularly in the first year to see how it developed. I can't say I was impressed, and would never pay again. Sometimes the public are worth listening to.  

The Chinese Garden should be kept at all costs

Unbelievable that we should be having this argument in this era.

The Chinese were one of the first immigrants along with the Irish et al to set forth into our communities back in the 1800's.  The very least this is an homage to our chinese in this community. I in the future want to know of their legacy in our community.

This project has always been fraught by veiled racist comments in the Dunedin community.  It should stay and perhaps all those people who are given community service in our justice system should be called upon to do the gardens etc.

Also i have often thought that there should be on going tea ceremonies at the gardens and perhaps a small store selling chinese lanterns etc.  here are ways of getting this to be profitable within our community without relying on Chinese tourists.  


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