20 Nov 2017

New theatre an opportunity for Hamilton

3:35 pm on 20 November 2017

A revitalised CBD and creative arts community in Hamilton is likely with the building of a new performing arts theatre in the city, according to backers of the plan.

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The proposed concept for the new theatre and arts hub along the Waikato River. Photo: Supplied / Momentum Waikato Foundation

Hamilton has been without a theatre capable of holding performances from full symphony orchestras, ballet companies and major stage productions for some time.

The situation was made worse last year when the 54-year-old Founders Theatre closed, although it had struggled for years to keep up with modern innovations in the theatre world.

The Founders abruptly shut in March 2016 due to health and safety concerns.

The city currently makes do with smaller theatres and misses out on big productions.

Opera has not been performed in the city for about 15 years.

The new performing arts centre, which is likely to be built on a Victoria Street block overlooking the Waikato River, is expected to house a 1100 seat auditorium with a motorised stage and full-height fly-tower.

The preferred site was selected from 25 around the city and announced in July this year.

The initial estimated cost of the project is just over $70 million and the Momentum Waikato Foundation believes this is achievable through contributions from local and central government, philanthropic trusts and public donations.

International theatre consultants from London, Charcoalblue, have been chosen to do the design.

Eric Lawrence and Andy Hayles

Eric Lawrence and Andy Hayles of Charcoalblue. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Eric Lawrence, from the company's Melbourne office, described the concept as one space that is fully adaptable.

"We have shown that this can be one big space that does everything and without compromise, which is really important."

"It is a fully functioning theatre to replace Founders with bigger and better facilities and a lot more flexibility built in and adaptability within the auditorium."

Consultation with arts and community groups is ongoing.

Charcoalblue Managing Partner Andy Hayles said the reaction to the project so far had been extremely positive.

"There is a real appetite for culture in this town, there's a real ambition for development and transformation and improvement for the whole city, not just this project."

"We feel like we are at the pointy-end, the spearhead of the change and improvements to come," Mr Hayles said.

'Opportunity to transform a whole community'

Hamilton Theatre proposed site, Victoria Street

The proposed site on Victoria street. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

The driving force behind the new theatre is the Momentum Waikato Foundation.

Its chair, Leonard Gardner, described it as a transformational project that is being driven by the community.

"Not often in a community, when you can have a project of this scale and this opportunity to transform a whole community comes about."

"It's like a transformational thing."

Iain White, Professor of Environmental Planning at Waikato University, said the project was a game changer for the city's CBD.

"You can expect an increase in hotel bookings, restaurant bookings, pre-theatre deals."

Professor White said it also helped generate the idea of a cultural quarter that is starting to set up around the river.

"The museum is there and it also links into the possibility of a new bridge and this kind of investment leads to much more investment even outside of the field of the theatre itself."

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Sarah Nathan. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

Creative Waikato's Sarah Nathan said the arts sector was delighted by what was being proposed.

"With the community willing behind this project it will happen as long as that community will continues.

"Everything from the aspirations of the creative community but more so from the wider community, which are the audiences."

Mr Hayles from Charcoalblue said the Victoria Street site already has cultural significance.

It once housed the Embassy Theatre and also includes the Riff Raff statue celebrating the Rocky Horror Show and its creator, Richard O'Brien, who lived in Hamilton.

"There is cultural life, cultural pulse there already and we think we can just feed that and grow it into a big beating heart of culture right in the heart of down-town. It is an amazing chance."

If all goes to plan, the new theatre will open in July 2021.

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