The Prime Minister has not tried to hide the fact that it was the public who decided the Government should not put public money into an Auckland international convention centre. "In the end I just think that public opinion on this thing, rightly so, was, 'There's a deal, leave it as the contract said ... ' and that's what we're going to do."
It sounds like the decision was made against his better judgment. He and Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce were both open to the idea of a public contribution last week. They appeared to be softening the country for an announcement that the money would be well spent if it was necessary to secure the $402 million promised by SkyCity 18 months ago for a convention centre of the desired standard.
But the chorus of public disapproval, echoed no doubt in the Government's private polling, has persuaded them otherwise. A deal is a deal as far as the country is concerned, even if the small print allowed for the possibility of a public contribution in the event that costs escalated. It was a deal that carried a public price in additional gambling concessions and an extension of the casino's monopoly licence.
Now SkyCity needs to remind itself what it is gaining before it trims its plans too much.
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It also gained the right to buy a site for the convention centre from TVNZ, a right the casino quickly exercised. Three months after doing so SkyCity revised its plan for the site, adding a 500-bed hotel and giving it the prominent northeastern corner. At the same time it reduced the capacity of the convention centre. Rather than conferences of 3500-5000 delegates, SkyCity's application to the Auckland Council for resource consent now envisages seating 1500-3500.
The Government has not quibbled about the revised capacity, even when it was being asked to contribute to the cost escalation. SkyCity is the best judge of the capacity it can sustain and so long as public money is not involved, the design and scale of the centre can be left to its judgment. But the additional gambling rights and licence extension give the Government a say in the plans.
Mr Joyce has declared himself comfortable with a facility 10 per cent smaller, "but no more than that". In that event, might the Government then reduce the additional pokie machines by 10 per cent? Critics of the original deal will urge it to do so. But since SkyCity is now willing to proceed without public money, perhaps it can be cut some slack. The company expects to pay more than $402 million and there has been no suggestion it seeks a proportionate increase in its gaming licences.
The centre it now designs might not be an architectural "icon" but SkyCity already provides Auckland with an icon that stands above the casino and will easily distinguish the convention centre too. Now that its bid for public cash has been answered, the company needs to recover the city's confidence. An impressive building would be welcome but it is far more important that the venue is expertly marketed around the world. SkyCity is Auckland's best bet.