Editorial: Open minds needed on project cash

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Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Doug Sherring
Auckland Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Doug Sherring

Mayor Len Brown's first 10-year budget is certain to receive a stormy reception from councillors today.

Citizens & Ratepayers leader Christine Fletcher has indicated as much, saying the time is not right for a big budget and big spend-up.

But Mr Brown seems determined to press ahead with a long-term plan that incorporates major projects, notably the central rail loop, in his quest to make Auckland among the world's most liveable cities, while at the same time restricting rate increases.

One thing is certain: Mrs Fletcher's concerns are valid unless the council is open to some novel ways of financing visionary projects.

In its Opinion pages yesterday, the Herald published two examples of what this might entail. Gordon Moller, the chairman of the Auckland Theatre Company, wrote of plans for a new waterfront theatre, and Bevan Woodward, of the AHB Pathway Trust, asked for a path and cycleway across the harbour bridge to be included in the council's long-term plan.

Both projects incorporate fresh approaches to funding at a time when local government, as much as central government, is having to make difficult financial decisions.

The SkyPath proposal envisages a pathway slung under the city-side harbour bridge clip-on. This would be financed by private sector investors, who would seek to profit from a $2 toll on walkers and cyclists and corporate sponsorship.

There would be no ratepayer finding, and the project would, according to Mr Woodward, be a chance for the council to demonstrate it "is capable of working with the private sector to enable transformational projects".

The promoters are obviously convinced that their pathway will succeed, despite the city's boisterous weather and the bridge's steep gradient. These deterred the Auckland City Council from offering financial backing to similar proposals.

Its successor should be aware that, despite the absence of council funding, there are risks in endorsing this project. If the pathway fails to attract sufficient patronage from tourists, it will probably fail. In that case, the council could have to bail it out and have little option but to operate it. For that reason, its endorsement of the project should be subject to a thorough assessment of the scheme's financial viability.

The proposal for a 600-seat theatre for the Auckland Theatre Company, to be built alongside the ASB Bank headquarters at the Wynyard Quarter, also has innovative aspects.

The bank is offering $6 million of the $41 million cost, and the theatre company has $5.7 million pledged from corporate and individual donors. The council has said it will contribute $10 million but not until the company has all the other funding arranged.

That is as it should be. The council's offer is generous given the large number of venues for the performing arts, in the central city and other parts of Auckland. Equally, not so long ago Auckland City Council ratepayers contributed to the smaller Q Theatre in the city centre.

Nonetheless, the proposed theatre would further enliven the redeveloped waterfront.

If the council ensures the ratepayer contribution is capped and is convinced of the theatre's operating economics, it should be open to seizing this opportunity for a high-class venue.

Mr Brown seems, commendably, to be well aware of the need for such options. He has also indicated that the council could sell some non-strategic assets, if not shares in the port and airport. Other funding sources are being assessed for the rail loop. In the present climate, such an open mind will be imperative if such projects are to be delivered while a rein is kept on rates.

- NZ Herald

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