A stage too far

Timing, it seems, is as crucial to important decisions by the Dunedin City Council as it is to government on a larger scale.

There will be a lot of speculation in the city about whether the chances for a new purpose-built mid-sized theatre would have been improved had the council not first committed so much of its new funding to the roofed stadium and the very substantial redevelopment of the town hall and Glenroy.

Some might even argue that the rejection of proposals for a new mid-size theatre is not rational but the outcome of a combination of effective lobbying and a fear of electoral backlash - "cold feet", in fact.

The present and earlier councils have deferred making such a commitment faced, as they have been, with the many difficult factors it presents.

Cost has certainly been one of these, although not necessarily the critical one.

As a council report earlier observed: "Most existing venues are too small, too big, too expensive or have multiple uses", so councillors probably have foremost in their minds the likely impact on the viability of existing ratepayer-owned or supported theatres if a new facility was built.

There was some support for this latter contention in the latest consultant's report, which suggested there was insufficient tangible evidence the city was missing out on shows that would be attracted if a new theatre was built.

The implication was obvious: a new theatre would risk the viability of the existing venues.

Nor can it be overlooked that the council has approved an expensive refurbishment of the town hall and Glenroy - after thorough public debate - as well as the less well-publicised, let alone debated, $4.7 million work on the Regent Theatre for the Otago Theatre Trust.

Having rejected a new theatre as being not justified, the consultants considered needs could be met by modifying existing theatres to achieve the technical and performance requirements of promoters, performers and audiences.

These include, in the Regent, the provision of alternative seating configurations to reduce capacity for shows too large for the Mayfair Theatre.

The consultants estimated costs for meeting its recommendation could amount to more than $14 million.

This relatively small sum will gladden the hearts of councillors already frightened by the council's debt load when estimates for a new theatre range upwards to $35 million and probably beyond.

But the recommendation and acceptance of refurbishment of existing venues is a decision that will make the provision of a new theatre - an inevitability - something a future council will again have to consider.

Refurbishing existing venues, especially the Regent and Mayfair and probably the Fortune, also means the certainty of continuous demand for both capital and maintenance funding on old buildings which will continue to deteriorate over time.

Each was built for another purpose, in another era, and none are presently ideally suited to the purposes for which they are being used.

That may change given the sums proposed to be spent on them, but we note again the submission by the Otago Theatre Trust to the council that, despite all the money provided by the council, raised by the trust, and spent over 35 years on the Regent, "it is now in a situation where it can no longer meet either the technical or safety aspects of stage production".

Whether the proposed funds will actually advance these venues to a 21st-century state and achieve for users - and especially patrons - equivalency with a new theatre has to be questionable.

If modern touring shows are avoiding Dunedin because of its theatre limitations, would more be attracted to the city if it had a new purpose-built theatre - or with the refurbished existing venues? The question remains unanswered, and is perhaps unanswerable given the council's committed capital expenditure sequence.

In the meantime, the council's decision to purchase the Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute building in 2007 for such a theatre can only now be regarded as an opportunity lost, from which ratepayers are entitled to now demand a true commercial return appropriate to its location - an early issue, perhaps, for the new chief executive of Dunedin Venues Management Ltd to resolve.

The option of a new mid-sized theatre was sidestepped when the former Concert Chamber was rebuilt as the Glenroy, and it has been sidestepped again.

That is a decision with little to commend it, as a future council will doubtless conclude.


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