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Current as of 29/12/14 07:40PM NZST

SkyCity theatre under threat

By Kathryn Powley

File photo / Dean Purcell
File photo / Dean Purcell

SkyCity casino is already planning where it will put its extra pokie machines - but a win for gamblers could come at a cost for theatre-goers.

Sources allege SkyCity Theatre is to close to make space for up to 500 more pokie machines. Architects have been measuring up the inner-city theatre in anticipation that John Key's Government will sign off the extra machines, they say.

Confirmation that the casino has stopped booking shows for the theatre and brought in architects has alarmed Auckland's art community, and infuriated the Greens who say it shows the convention centre-for-pokies is a done deal.

The Herald on Sunday put it to SkyCity that the theatre was to be closed to make way for pokies, and that no bookings were being taken for the last three months of the year.

"SkyCity is still considering its overall strategy for the theatre which is in need of some reinvestment," the casino responded. "For that reason we believe it would be inconsiderate to take bookings from groups for next year and then have to cancel them at a later date once we have determined that strategy."

When told the newspaper understood architects were already involved, and that people were concerned gaming machines were to be installed in the theatre space, SkyCity replied with another written statement: "Architects have drawn up a range of different high-level concepts for adjacent spaces over the past two years but our strategy for the theatre is still undecided."

According to a 2008 report to Auckland City Council prepared by hospitality consultants Horwarth HTL, the 700-seat theatre has been under-used, but was a condition of SkyCity's casino licence.

SkyCity management told the consultants it wanted events in the theatre to be "consistent" with the complex's theme.

SkyCity is in negotiations with the Government to build a $350 million national convention centre on the condition that the casino be allowed more pokie machines.

It wants to increase the number from 1647 machines to at least 2000. Chief executive Nigel Morrison told the NZ Herald this week: "If you come here on a Wednesday night or a Friday night, the property is full. It is uncomfortable."

But the Herald on Sunday surveyed the seating around pokie machines at the casino four times a day through the latter half of this week. We found plenty of empty chairs - at least 250 pokie machines free on every visit.

On Thursday we checked at 12.30pm and 5.30pm when there were more than 300 empty stools, and by 8pm there were more than 500 spare seats.

It was the same on Friday and through yesterday until 5.30pm, when business on the pokies floor had picked up. There were still about 300 empty machines, but it was filling up and starting to get "uncomfortable." At 8pm, there were about 250 vacant stools.

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei said the survey was telling. "SkyCity has argued there is not enough room. It's clearly untrue, there is clearly sufficient space."

It was time SkyCity came clean about its plans for the theatre: "There's a very strong indication that SkyCity is intending to remove the theatre and use that space for the expansion of pokies," she said.

Aucklanders needed to know what they were losing as part of the deal, especially as there was already a shortage of good theatre space in Auckland.

Theatre industry insiders said SkyCity stopped booking big shows about a year ago.

Auckland Theatre Company general manager Lester McGrath said the theatre was "core" to the company's business. Nigel Morrison rejected the survey findings: "Like any entertainment or hospitality business, SkyCity has significant variations in demand across a week and through the year," he said. "At peaks SkyCity frequently has insufficient availability to meet customer demand."

- Herald on Sunday

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