After three years of delay, a deal to build Christchurch a new convention centre should be about to be signed. But why do some still think it is misconceived? John McCrone reports.
How much is it actually costing? Could the money have been better spent? And how did the whole procurement process get quite so drastically out of line?
Yes, we must be talking about Christchurch’s promised new convention centre in Cathedral Square. Any day soon, Otakaro Ltd, the Government’s rebuild project manager, is meant to be awarding the contract.
After grand plans which saw a quarter billion dollar project blow out to half a billion, and with a commercial partner to share the cost becoming impossible to find, last year the Government had to shave down the spec and seek a fixed-price builder.
Word is Australia’s CPB Contractors is in line to take the contract. The other contender, Downer/Hawkins, dropped out of the running in June.
Asking for confidentiality, one insider says Treasury could look at the final number and say the project fails to stack up. The game would be to let the convention centre announcement slide until after the elections, then tell Christchurch, sorry, no can do.
But Otakaro chief executive, Albert Brantley, laughs that suggestion off. The deal is ready to sign, he says.
There was a first round where contractors were bidding on a 50 per cent complete design and then the just completed round where they bid on the final detail.
‘‘We have to go to our shareholding ministers and get approval for the contract. And that’s the step we’re preparing for right now,’’ Brantley reassures.
Yet still there are the public interest questions around the convention centre. Like why was it ever made the flagship project of the Government’s 2013 Blueprint recovery plan?
There was an opportunity cost in clearing out such a prime spot in the city for a giant international meetings pavilion – ‘‘A nice place for business people to meet and talk about other places,’’ as one critic said.
Convention centres are too often public dead zones. Anonymous and disconnected.
If there was to be a central showpiece project, why not spend the tax payer money on something that would touch Christchurch citizens directly – like the cultural centre suggested by Ngai Tahu?
That would have the same logic – create something which captures the international tourist dollar – but also would be a legacy project that helped define the post-quake identity of the city.
There were other choices. So how did we arrive at such a prominent convention centre? And will its enforced grandiosity leave a bitter legacy, whoever pays?
The Government has been highly secretive about the behindthe-scenes detail. But from information released under the Official Information Act, along with insights from those in the know in the Christchurch business community, a picture can be reconstructed.
The simple story, sources say, is the Government always wanted something too big. And in trying to justify that – put it in a prime location, make it an architectural statement, wrap it around with hotels, shops and a performing arts precinct – the costs were always going to blow out.
Pre-quake, Christchurch already had a small convention centre. And even though it was cheap tilt-slab building tucked out of sight across the road from the Town Hall in Kilmore St, it still had little problem attracting international business.
It was ideal for 600 delegate meetings – the majority of the market. And with an air bridge connecting it to the Town Hall’s auditorium, it could even host the occasional 2000 delegate event.
By 2010, plans were in train to double it. The council had bought up land behind to build a 1500 seat auditorium that could be split to run two smaller conferences simultaneously. There would be a dedicated banquet hall and extra exhibition space.
So immediately after the earthquakes, the obvious thought was to take the $30 million or so insurance payout on the building and get on with that.
The council in its draft 2012 budget was speaking of a $221m project with a Crown contribution of $70m that would include repairs and changes to the Town Hall to create a more connected precinct.
However then Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee stepped in and took over control of the central city’s rebuild. He formed the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) and charged it with producing a ‘‘100 day Blueprint’’ masterplan.
At that point, says one of those involved, the demand became to build a convention centre four times the original one’s size.
‘‘When we saw the brief for it, we all went holy s...,’’ the source says, eyes widening.
It turned out that as Minister for Economic Development, Brownlee had also been responsible for a new national convention centre strategy.
The argument was countries like Singapore and Australia had invested billions in growing their convention trade. Conference goers are valuable tourists, spending four times as much on average each day, as well as staying several nights longer than other tourists.
The Ministry for Economic Development said a conference centre only had to break even. The real value is the wider boost to the economy through money spent on hotels, excursions and dining.
Its strategy called for a hierarchy of New Zealand facilities with Auckland getting a 3500 seater, Christchurch a 2000 one, and Queenstown one for 750.
It was that number that went into the Blueprint’s brief without any proper local business case study, says the source. ‘‘These were grasped figures.’’
The problem became where to locate a convention centre of such a scale. Cathedral Sq leading down to the Avon River was the obvious desirable site. However that plan also required the dooming of the old Town Hall.
The source says the early geotech advice was the Town Hall