Chinese Garden comes under council scrutiny

Questions and suggestions were the order of the day for the manager of the Dunedin Chinese Garden, Margo Reid, when she appeared before city councillors yesterday to discuss the garden's financial future.

The community development committee was considering a progress report from Ms Reid on how the garden was going to deal with falling visitor numbers and greater reliance on ratepayer contributions to cover costs.

The committee met after the regular public forum, at which Dunedin Ratepayers Association president Lyndon Weggery told councillors ratepayers were disappointed with a two-page report produced by Ms Reid two years after staff were asked to investigate merging the garden with Toitu Otago Settlers Museum.

The report showed little had been done in that time to address the issue of increasing amounts of ratepayer dollars needed to keep the garden going, Mr Weggery said.

"Sorry people, but ... this short report is a joke."

When the council agreed to take on the garden, the arrangement was that ratepayers would fund 60% of the operating costs and the garden would cover the rest from ticket and shop sales and room hire.

However, this year, it is expected a ratepayer contribution of 69%, or $585,000, will be required as visitor numbers to the garden continue to decrease.

In her report, Ms Reid said the staffing budget could be cut by $55,000 by working more closely with the museum, and staff were looking into commercial options.

She declined to discuss the details because people's jobs were affected and, she said, it would not be sensible to put anything forward until the museum was fully operational.

Commercial options were also yet to be canvassed, so she could not elaborate at this stage.

She said she understood it had "taken a while" to get to this stage, but the councillors' request "had not been actioned immediately" and garden staff were "catching up" on it.

Committee chairman Cr Bill Acklin said garden staff had not been doing nothing in the preceding 20 months. The garden's operating and staff costs had been cut and further potential savings had been identified.

To a question from Cr Lee Vandervis, Ms Reid said she expected visitor numbers to rise when the museum reopened, and further when the old Dunedin Prison was redeveloped and the warehouse precinct was improved.

Last year there were about 28,000 visitors, and about 40,000 visitors a year would be ideal.

But operating costs had been cut about as low as they could go, she told him.

She told Cr Andrew Noone the garden recognised the opportunity cruise passengers represented and was actively courting them by handing out pamphlets as they arrived in town.

Cr Jinty MacTavish asked if ticket sales at the museum and a physical link between the buildings were being considered, to which Ms Reid said everything was part of her review, but a lot relied on waiting until the museum was fully operational again.

Cr MacTavish said it seemed "bizarre" some council-funded facilities were free when others charged entry and asked if the public had been asked their views on the barriers to visiting the garden. Ms Reid said two surveys were under way.

Cr Richard Thomson said the garden's operational fit with the museum should have been part of the museum's redevelopment from the start, and arrangements should be expedited, rather than something staff were "waiting to do".

He was also concerned the public debate focused too much on finding cost savings, when it should focus on improving the marketing of the garden.

Deputy mayor Chris Staynes agreed and said better marketing of the city's attractions was a priority of the economic development strategy, while council chief executive Paul Orders said any increase in city marketing budgets would have to be considered as part of next year's annual plan.


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