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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.