The Prime Minister says public money might be put into a convention centre at SkyCity to ensure it is not an "eyesore". Opposition leader Andrew Little wonders how bad a $402 million eyesore could be. That is the sum the casino agreed 18 months ago to spend on a convention centre of the scale the Government had specified. In December, the company said cost overruns and "design improvements" had added $70 million to $130 million to the estimate and it wanted a contribution from taxpayers.
If as Mr Key suggested this week, the added cost arises mainly for aesthetic reasons, SkyCity should be told not to worry. Some people are going to say the centre is an eyesore no matter how flash the building may be. The design of the existing casino is not universally admired. A big convention centre adjoining it need not be an architectural stunner. Indeed, the artist's impression made public by SkyCity suggests it will not be.
A $402 million centre, as agreed between the company and the Government two years ago, will do just fine. The company was awarded the project because it believed then it could build and run the facility without a subsidy. It asked only for more gambling capacity and a licence extension. The Government was rightly criticised for compromising a social policy in the bargain. If SkyCity now want a subsidy as well, its reason needs to be better than the appearance of the thing.
The casino has already given Auckland a stunning skyline feature. The SkyTower ensures that any building associated with it will be distinguished. In fact, the tower looks out of proportion with the casino as it stands, but once an international convention centre and another hotel are connected to the casino, the complex, including the tower, will look more complete.
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An eyesore it will not be, whatever the odd critic may say. It will be a modern building designed to appeal to the international business convention trade. Its character is likely to be one of corporate glitz which is not to everyone's taste.
The published artist's impression shows a functional block design incorporating the facades of a couple of existing buildings. If this is contributing to the higher cost, the problem is easily fixed. Facades are phony heritage protection. They are dead shells clinging to modern structures that overwhelm them.
If the problem is more serious, if SkyCity has found a 3000-seat convention centre to be uneconomic without a public contribution of capital or running costs, then the Government should change the specification rather than put in public money. Let SkyCity build to whatever scale it believes it can operate profitably. That will be the most economic proposal for Auckland and the country.
Let other cities subsidise international convention centres if they wish, an economy of our size needs to be more careful. Public investment in projects that cannot pay off is not just a waste of public money, it entices scarce private capital into poor investments. An eyesore is the least of our worries.