No one, least of all the Ōruru Inland Valleys Association, will have been surprised that those deemed to have the greatest interest in restoring the Swamp Palace had not rushed to sign up for a targeted rate to fund it.
That rate has been calculated at $1.16 a week per rateable property, perhaps for as long as 10 years. A modest sum, but there were always going to be those who could be relied upon to resist any increase in their annual bill, no matter how small, and a greater number perhaps who couldn't be bothered to fill in the form and return it.
It was always going to be a hard sell, despite the relatively simple solution it offered for an issue that has dragged on for years. The greatest enemy was always going to be apathy, and if the proposal was going to succeed it needed an election-style campaign, a concerted push to persuade people that the money would be well spent. That was probably beyond the means of the OIVA, and perhaps it wasn't the council's obligation.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, the proposal to strike the rate has failed dismally to achieve the 75 per cent yes vote, with unreturned papers counted as no.
The hall isn't doomed just yet though. Plan B for the OIVA is to seek funding in the form of grants, but therein lies a catch 22. The council can't apply for such funding, but the community can, if the council divests ownership of the hall to the OIVA. The association can't apply for funding from outside sources either, however, until the hall is structurally sound, which it says it is not.
Two years ago reference was made at a public meeting to a report commissioned by the council, stating that the hall was still standing largely thanks to "nails holding hands." More recently the association has been told that it is deteriorating at the rate of 25 years' worth of wear and tear every 12 months.
If something isn't done soon there will be nothing left to restore. And that would be a great shame.
Two years ago Mayor John Carter said the Far North's 27 halls, along with parks and reserves, were costing ratepayers $1 million a year. At least 10 halls needed similar "input" as the Swamp Palace, at a collective cost of perhaps $6 million. That figure has no doubt increased exponentially since then, but the Ōruru Hall does have some claim to special consideration.
It might not have any great architectural merit, but various musicians who have performed there have described its acoustics as superb. And it has a genuine right to the arguably overused description as historic.
It was built at Cable Bay in 1902, as part of the Pacific Cable Station, which linked New Zealand to British Columbia. Twelve years later it was sold to the Dominion Cement Company, and later moved 7km to Ōruru, being barged up the Ōruru River then loaded aboard a bullock wagon for the final stretch.
John Carter, who according to OIVA chair Kath Adams is perhaps the only person connected to the FNDC who has shown empathy or enthusiasm for finding a solution, made it clear two years ago that there could be no guarantees of council support. Some who attended the public meeting at Taipā exhibited the layman's penchant for proposing simple solutions, such as that the $250,000 budgeted by the council for maintenance of the hall in 2014-15, which was never spent, being taken from the "stupid" waterfront development at Mangonui, and from the cost of demolishing the old single-lane Taipā bridge, which was in the process of becoming replaced by the flash new two-lane structure.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the waterfront developments, it was never going to be robbed of that sort of money, however, and the NZTA, not the council, was paying for the dismantling of the old bridge.
There was a view then, as now, that the council, and its predecessor, the Mangonui County Council, had failed to meet their obligation to maintain the hall, which in 2018 was declared too dangerous to enter. In 2014 the cost of completing all deferred maintenance had been estimated at $593,000, about the same as a completely new hall would cost to build.
Carter suggested in 2018 that the bill could be reduced significantly if the community did some of the work. There was support for that, but any light that might have seemed to be flickering at the end of the tunnel two years ago has not become any brighter since.
One thing the council could do is improve its communication with the association, and devise a system that does not require a return to Square 1 every time someone in the council moves on and is replaced. Perhaps that is just how bureaucracies work these days, but the OIVA has no doubt that a lack of communication has delayed this project time and time again, perhaps fatally, or at least has added hugely to the cost.
It was all looking pretty positive two years ago. In November 2018 the council agreed to spend $196,724, plus GST, on structural work only, the hall then being divested to the association. Adams said the committee was awaiting further information from the council about costings, and there were still issues to work through, but she was feeling positive about the progress that was being made.
Carter said the council had committed to making the building structurally sound, but the community would have to do other work, such as replace weatherboards and repair the toilets. The association would be able to apply for grants for that work, and could use voluntary labour, reducing the cost.
Sounded good, but the situation two years later doesn't seem to have changed much. The association is prepared to accept ownership of the hall, once it is structurally sound, at which point it will be able to go looking for funding. It believed two years ago that it would be foolish in the extreme to take over while it was still in danger of collapsing, and that view does not seem to have changed.
It also believes that the council might be precluded from seeking funding from sources that would potentially be available to the association, but does have other options.
Whatever, it was clear last week that a targeted rate had been struck off the list of options. The association believes however that what Adams had always regarded as a long shot had been made an even longer one by the way the council conducted the process, including the time given for responses and the wording of its letter to those who were being invited to stump up with $1.16 a week.
Perhaps the association has overestimated the depth of affection the people who pay rates within a 10km radius of the hall have for it. Those who wish to keep it are unmistakably passionate, but how many of them are there? Not a lot, judging by the response to the targeted rate appeal. But there will be some, no doubt, within the 10km radius and further afield, who would like to keep it but haven't got around to doing anything about it. It seems likely that they won't know what they've lost til it's gone.
Ever wondered where the name Swamp Palace came from? According to legend, someone suggested a grandiose moniker such as The Palace when Richard Weatherly set it up as a cinema. "You can't call it that," he retorted. "It's sitting in a bloody swamp."