The road ahead is finally clear for construction of the $73 million, 1300-seat Waikato Regional Theatre beside the Waikato River in Hamilton's CBD after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern broke ground on Tuesday in a brief ceremony using the city's ceremonial ko - a traditional Māori digging tool.
The ceremonial ko named Koko I ara, meaning to clear the pathway, was carved by Inia Te Wiata Jnr on behalf of the hapu of Kirikiriroa and gifted to the council in 2019.
The theatre project has been driven by local community leadership foundation Momentum Waikato with the Waikato Regional Property Trust created to have governance responsibility for the theatre.
Trust chairman Ross Hargood welcomed guests to the sod-turning and acknowledged Leonard Gardner and the original Momentum board for having the vision to keep pushing and overcome the obstacles when Hamilton City Council faced the challenges of having to replace Founders Theatre.
"I imagine that the Prime Minister will recap that the project has been through the whole cycle of traffic lights, green when Momentum won support for the project, orange while we raised funds the occasional red light as we dealt with various bigger issues and Covid and now you are here Prime Minister to give us the green light for the theatre," Hargood said.
"The new theatre will be at the heart of the city's creative precinct, this riverside site is close to the Waikato Museum, the Arts Post Building and the Meteor Theatre. It was chosen because it fully realises our community's well established cultural and economic development aspirations," he said.
"I can't wait for opening night, we look forward to seeing you all there, including the Prime Minister."
The speeches and ceremony went ahead with a background chorus of anti-vaccine mandate protesters standing in the rain, watched by police, outside the gate on Sapper Moore-Jones Place singing and chanting obscenities. In some ways similar to the chorus in a classical Greek play, serving to formulate, express, and comment on the moral issue that is raised by the main dramatic action.
Jacinda Arden acknowledged them in her opening remarks, saying: "I do have some groupies that are following me a little bit. Their singing's not bad but their chants do need a little bit of work."
Ardern said she remembered standing on Victoria St to acknowledge the beginning of the theatre project.
"It was at a time when we were thinking of decisions that had to be made about Founders Theatre and everyone was looking for that new place where memories could be built and their legacies could be created; and you have done that and it is such an honour to be here today for this milestone.
"I am someone who has a lot of memories from Founders Theatre, some good, some bad, I graduated there, I watched many dance recitals from my sister, and those are the memories that help shape places.
"Covid has shown us how crucial it is for that sense of wellbeing, for us to be together, for us to experience the arts, to have an outlet for creativity and here you will have that. So I want to do nothing more than acknowledge that."
In closing, the Prime Minister also acknowledged Hamilton Labour MPs Gaurav Sharma and Jamie Strange telling guests: "The second reason I am here today is not only for the sod turning but also to mark Jamie Strange and Angela's 24th wedding anniversary."
His wife Angela Strange is a Waikato regional councillor and chairs the Regional Connections committee, responsible for public transport within Hamilton and the wider region.
Arden told Jamie: "Every time you come past this building remember you have to bring her here for many a date night, God knows she deserves it."
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate acknowledged the bold vision of those who were audacious enough to push for such a world class performance space and that enough people were bold enough to support it
She thanked the private sector, philanthropists, the city council, the regional council and other councils that supported the new regional theatre.
She said it would complement the rejuvenation of the Hamilton CBD. "Just last week we invited the private sector to support the council in projects for commercial, retail and residential development on the CBD river front, and the rejuvenation of Embassy Park," she said.
She pointed out the new river jetty behind the theatre site and referred to the new River Centre planned in nearby Grantham Street , and also shared the council's vision for a new cycle and walking bridge over the river from the theatre to Hamilton East
"I look forward to seeing the new regional theatre arise from this land," she said
The theatre is due to be opened in early 2024. Momentum has launched a Share the Stage fundraising and community building campaign for the theatre – with "some fun stuff expected in the months ahead".
As the project coordinator, Momentum invites those interested to head to sharethestage.co.nz and Join the Audience by signing up for updates, invites and information via email as the project progresses. Share the Stage will be the main channel for theatre news.