Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Casino centre? We can find a better option

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Opposition politicians allege the deal was as good as sealed by Prime Minister Key in 2009. Photo / File
Opposition politicians allege the deal was as good as sealed by Prime Minister Key in 2009. Photo / File

So John Key had dinner with some SkyCity Casino bosses in November 2009 and their mutual interest in an Auckland international convention centre came up in conversation. Quelle surprise! It would have been exceedingly odd if it hadn't.

Earlier that year, Prime Minister Key, wearing his Tourism Minister hat, put up all but $50,000 of the cost of a joint $300,000 feasibility study into just such a project in partnership with the old Auckland City Council.

This followed years of lobbying by the tourism industry.

And of four Auckland sites singled out for further investigation, one was SkyCity land in Hobson St.

Opposition politicians now seem to be alleging that a deal was as good as sealed by Mr Key then and there.

While I love a good conspiracy story, it does seem Machiavellian of Mr Key to then, six months later, order the Ministry of Economic Development to call for "expressions of interest" from organisations interested in building such a facility.

Five interested parties responded: SkyCity, Ngati Whatua, which planned a building draped 6m above the Quay St rail corridor, infrastructure investor Infratil, with a development on its bus depot in the Wynyard Quarter, the ASB Showgrounds on its Epsom site and Auckland Council, with a proposal to convert the existing Aotea Centre.

Proposals had to be submitted by mid-June 2010.

Three months later, about the time it was expected the favoured bid would be announced, the first of the Christchurch earthquakes struck and the Government's attentions were instantly diverted southwards.

It was not until June last year that SkyCity was eventually declared the winner. By then the other contenders - and anyone with an ear to the ground - had a gut feeling the earthquakes had effectively knocked everyone but the casino operator out of the race. The rival bids all required Government financial input into the $350 million project - some as high as a 75 per cent contribution. SkyCity asked for no cash contribution.

But as Mr Key revealed at the time, nothing is for free. "The company has asked the Government to consider some alterations to gambling regulations and legislation." He added that "any changes to gambling regulations will be subject to a full public submissions process".

Now, 10 months later, the behind-the-scenes haggling is still going on. Reports are that SkyCity is holding out for permission to install up to 500 new pokie machines in its existing casino plus having its casino licence extended past 2021, as its price for the deal.

What the sticking points in the negotiations are have not been revealed, nor is what the Government will eventually subject to its full public submissions process.

In recent days a belated debate has erupted revealing strong public feeling that the social effects of flooding the Auckland market with extra pokie machines might be a price too high to pay. Opposition politicians have latched on to this mood and are running with it.

What they're not doing is addressing either the need for a national convention centre in the first place, and if the answer is yes, what is their alternative to one funded by Auckland's pokie addicts.

To me, if there is to be a convention centre, the only answer is the project encompassing and expanding the Aotea Centre.

Its central-city position within walking distance of hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues scored highly in the feasibility study assessment.

The plan is to incorporate the existing ASB Theatre as its main conference hall while expanding upwards and north along Mayoral Drive.

For ratepayers, this choice will protect the city's current investment in the convention business of the existing centre. If the new convention centre goes elsewhere, the Aotea's existing convention business could crash, leaving ratepayers with an underused millstone.

The icing on the cake is that as an integral part of the project, the moth-balled - and much missed - St James Theatre across Queen St would be restored as a 1200-seater venue for rock concerts, opera, ballet and drama.

This would make up for the loss of the larger ASB Theatre, which, to be honest, has always been a problematic space acoustically for entertainment, but would be excellent wired for large conference sessions.

It's good to see Opposition politicians badgering the Government over the ethics of funding a convention centre out of the personal misery of addicts, but I wish they'd also push for a positive alternative.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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