Saving Sammy’s

Photo by Jane Dawber.
Photo by Jane Dawber.
Dunedin City Council staff decided earlier this year to buy the ailing Sammy’s building, and councillors have subsequently decided to ask the public for their views on the future of the building.

The council has called for residents’ "dreams and visions" for the building,  a positive first step in determining its future.

Without doubt,  there is a strong feeling among Dunedin artists, musicians and audiences  the city needs a 500 to 800-capacity performing arts venue.

The beautiful Regent, with scope for more than 1000, can be too big, and the likes of the Glenroy or the Mayfair too small.

School auditoriums fill part of the niche for concerts and plays,  but have their limitations, certainly for nightclub settings.

Others  feel it would be better as a dedicated live music venue.  

Dunedin, outside the large concerts, has struggled on this front, especially as  licensed premises have moved out of this role.

The council bought the 121-year-old building for only $128,000, which says something about its parlous state.  Councillors have been told it will cost  $650,000  for  seismic strengthening work, weatherproofing, electrical safety and security to get the building fit for public use.  No doubt, conversion to a proper theatre or music venue will cost much, much more.

The chairman of the council’s community and culture committee, Aaron Hawkins, while saying protecting the venue was "huge" for the city, is careful to say he has no fixed view on what the building should become.

Of interest are comments that ways to involve the arts and business communities in the building’s redevelopment would be considered, with a partnership venture a likelihood.

The building was originally called the Agricultural Hall and was operated by the A&P Society.  In 1902 it was redeveloped and reopened as His Majesty’s Theatre. At one stage it was fronted on Crawford St by a grand Victorian foyer and facade. It was condemned in the 1970s and part of the building was demolished.  It reopened in 1983 as Sammy’s restaurant and nightclub.

In its time it has hosted Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Dame Nellie Melba and other famous names, as well as having strong links to Dunedin Sound staples The Chills, The Verlaines and The Clean.  At one time it included a gallery, proscenium, fly loft, orchestra pit and wings, "exuberant" plasterwork, and could seat 1000.

Council urban design team leader Crystal Filep has said what emerges could boost the redevelopment of the warehouse precinct in the area. The original grand Victorian foyer and facade on Crawford St  are gone, and the modern sign is widely thought of as hideous.  Of particular interest is the elaborate rear brick facade facing Vogel St. 

The Sammy’s purchase was also a way to support owners investing their own money in the precinct’s redevelopment. One option is for the venue to be added to the council-owned stable of Dunedin Venues Management Ltd (DVML). So far so good.   Once the ideas come in, difficult questions will arise around funding, and that should include not just capital costs but likely running costs.  It is a huge challenge for venues to turn profits.

This is where the council, always under spending pressure,  will have to make tough decisions with long-term implications.

A report is being put together for the council’s long-term meeting in December and there was no budget this year for the building.  Nothing can happen until July next year at the earliest. In the meantime, there is the opportunity for "dreams and visions" to be expressed, for ideas to be shared as the council receives feedback.

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