22 Dec 2016

Govt called on to help restore Auckland's St James Theatre

From Checkpoint, 5:22 pm on 22 December 2016

Advocates for Auckland's troubled St James Theatre are calling on the government to fund the final stages of its restoration to bring it back into public use.

A developer yesterday pulled the plug on the construction of 300 apartments attached to the site, and the parallel restoration of the historic theatre is now uncertain.

The company still intended to honour its commitment to complete structural and seismic work on the St James.

Save the St James spokesperson Tina Plunkett said it was seeking a commitment from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to open up its heritage fund to finance the project.

"The National Heritage Fund has been set up in a way that it wasn't able to create funding for the St James. With such an important heritage building smack in the middle of the arts district, I'm wondering if not for that building, what is the National Heritage Fund set up for?"

Ms Plunkett said the developer's announcement was another blow in the step to ensuring the theatre was saved and reopened to the public.

"The developers and people I have talked to have definitely been trying to paint a rosy picture, but it's been so many years in process, that it's just another delay for the actual theatre, regardless what happens with the apartments."

Auckland Council had pledged $15 million, and said it hoped it could finalise the agreement early next year to complete the theatre.

The Auckland Notable Property Trust owns the theatre, and director Steve Bielby said it needed more than $10m from the government to get the project over the line.

Mr Bielby said securing funding was difficult because the trust was privately owned and did not automatically qualify, within the traditional philanthropic structure.

A ministerial grant outside of the normal funding scope would be needed, he said.

While Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Maggie Barry had shown some interest, there had been no commitment yet, Mr Bielby said.

Jacinda Ardern, the Labour MP for Central Auckland and the party's spokesperson for arts, culture and heritage, said Ms Barry gave the impression the government would assist, but had since been quiet.

"All anyone has ever asked central government to do was to have an open mind and think creatively about whether there was a way to make a contribution - anything from, for instance, allowing a GST write-off for the re-development.

"There was no set notion from the St James side that there was only one way to fix or resolve this problem."

Heritage building consultant Allan Matson said the theatre was a long term asset and Auckland Council could also be committing further funds.

"They could put their thinking caps on and find some way to do it. If it needs to be amortised over a long period, then so be it - you can't have it languishing forever.

"You've got certainly the demand for it and from many realms of the artistic world."

A spokesperson for the Ministry for Heritage and Culture said it had not received an application for funding for the St James Theatre.

The spokesperson said ministry officials were in contact with Mr Bielby and would continue discussions in the new year.


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