The Founders Theatre, the Waikato’s flagship performance venue, was closed by its owner the Hamilton City Council for safety reasons in March 2016, a loss that was immediately felt by the city and region.

The cost of repairing the Founders to simply reopen its doors to the public, with no significant modernisation, was then estimated at $25 million, at the limit of what the Council could reasonably afford.

In response Momentum Waikato approached the Council in July 2016 and proposed to lead a robust process to develop a new Waikato Regional Theatre (WRT), starting with a strategic review to both define the venue’s specifications and identify the best location.

This offer was based on the Council putting up $25 million, the sum required to simply repair Founders, as the cornerstone deposit on the project, with Momentum Waikato committing to raise the balance from public, community and private sources.

The Council agreed and soon after the Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel was independently appointed to plan the project. Its first task, in partnership with international theatre designers Charcoalblue, was a strategic review of potential sites, which was completed and delivered as the WRT Location Report in May 2017. 

The 25 spots initially considered included the University, the Hamilton Gardens, the Claudelands Event Centre and various sites in the CBD. The Founders site was carefully reviewed but didn’t score highly on a number of counts, most critically for not fulfilling or progressing the city’s urban design goals.   

The short list of seven sites that were then further investigated included upper Grantham St, the southern Ferrybank, Garden Place and the Sonning Carpark on River Rd.

The preferred location was finally identified as the Hamilton Hotel site on the South End of Victoria St, at the heart of the city’s ‘creative precinct’, as it scored by far the highest overall in the analysis applying the community’s established policy and development aspirations.

In August 2017 Momentum Waikato and the Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel presented the Hamilton City Council with a comprehensive feasibility study, the WRT Phase One Design Report from Charcoalblue and NZ civic architects Jasmax. It describes the parameters and considerations for building a world-class theatre on the Hamilton Hotel site capable of hosting the international calibre performing arts events the Waikato deserves.

This initial scoping document was then the basis for a series of public and stakeholder consultation meetings organised by Creative Waikato and The Stakeholder Agency from August to November 2017. Feedback on functionality, accessibility, location and the benefits to the wider community was recorded, and just over 200 people then made formal written submissions, all of which was subsequently published in the WRT Consultation Summary

As part of that process Andy Hayles, Charcoalblue’s London Managing Partner, presented to a well-attended Waikato Chamber of Commerce breakfast at The Atrium in October 2017. The Charcoalblue team have worked on a vast array of theatres worldwide, including the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal National Theatre and Royal Opera House, as showcased by Andy’s WRT presentation slideshow.

The consultation process then informed changes made to the theatre plans in Charcoalblue’s subsequent WRT Concept Design Report and Presentation released in March 2018, the most significant being extending the seating capacity to 1300. This report also provided the first detailed floor plans, elevations and more detailed concepts images, and provisionally costed the theatre build and kit-out at $73 million.

In October 2017, during the design consultation process, the theatre project received its first formal financial commitment, with Trust Waikato granting $15 million. Following the delivery of the WRT Concept Design Report and a presentation to the councils, the Hamilton City Council formally committed $25 million and the Waikato Regional Council $5 million in June 2018, at the culmination of their respective Long Term Plan processes for that electoral term.

The WRT Preliminary Design Report from Charcoalblue and Jasmax was completed in August 2018, which provides the comprehensive detailed plans and elements such as geo-tech testing required to progress to consenting and tendering.

This was followed in December 2018 by the Developed Design Report and Presentation, which provided the final detailed renderings for the theatre design and input from RDT Project Management, who are charged with coordinating the overall construction project.   

The Waikato Regional Property Trust (WRPT), which will ultimately own the theatre, was formed via the appointment of its first trustees in October 2018. The Trust will own the theatre’s operating company that will drive venue management, artistic programme direction and event promotion. It also replaced the Theatre Governance Panel in driving the oversight of the project, with several members crossing over to become trustees.

The Hamilton City Council had also committed to providing the theatre owners with an annual $1.1 million maintenance budget for twenty years, to both avoid the deterioration that compromised the Founders and to financially separate its asset management from the operation of the facility.        

Through 2019 the focus was on the resource and building consents, securing sponsorship pledges from local businesses, and negotiating the central government portion of the funding.

In November of that year Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced to a crowd of keen supporters in Embassy Park that the Provincial Growth Fund was putting $12 million into the construction of the theatre.

This took the funds raised to the preliminary target of $69 million, from a provisional budget of $74 million, allowing the project to go ‘live’.

This allowed the WRPT to progress the procurement processes for construction. The Trust was already evaluating three tenders for the build through Early Contractor Involvement but decided in December 2019 that the procurement process would need to be revisited ahead of a new call-out to test the market.

On learning of that move Leonard Gardner, the Chair of Momentum and CE of Foster Construction, withdrew from the Momentum Waikato Board’s limited theatre-related discussions, as it was flagged that Fosters could be approached by the WRPT in due course.

The Hamilton-based firm was subsequently asked to tender in February 2020, at which point Leonard resigned entirely from Momentum. Fosters was subsequently awarded the contract by the WRPT at the end of March, just as Covid-19 arrived.

The Level 4 Lockdown significantly slowed the required engagement with sub-contractors and suppliers needed to detail and confirm the build budget. It was only in the second half of 2020 that the process was able to get underway in earnest.

Meanwhile, as required by the Heritage Act element of the resource consent process, Heritage New Zealand had approved the plan to retain the Hamilton Hotel frontage while rebuilding everything behind it.

However, on the key archaeological matter Heritage NZ initially declined the authority to proceed due to uncertainty that there would be enough clearance between the theatre and the Hua o te Atua urupaa on the adjacent riverbank, a ruling made because the area of the pre-colonisation cemetery was insufficiently defined in the city’s District Plan.

Momentum had been engaged with mana whenua hapu Ngāti Wairere since 2017, via the representative groups Te Haa o Te Whenua o Kirikiriroa (THaWK) and Nga Mana Toopu o Kirikiriroa (NaMToK), and that Heritage NZ decision set entrain formal negotiations involving all the parties.

In June 2020 NaMToK carried out a tapu-lifting ceremony on the site and options for a way forward were tabled.

These talks with the mana whenua and Heritage NZ led the WRPT to make the culturally correct decision to move the theatre’s footprint eight meters to the west, towards Victoria St, meaning there will be no room for the proposed parallel hotel development in the former Hamilton Hotel.  

This move satisfied Heritage NZ that the risk of any impact on the urupaa had been removed. Despite this, NaMToK then appealed this decision in the Environment Court, claiming more consultation was required and to assert that they, and not THaWK, were the primary representatives of Ngāti Wairere.

The court’s response was that it was up to the hapuu itself to decide which group spoke for it and that Momentum and the WRPT had properly consulted with the mana whenua through both THaWK and NaMToK. In the latter case, there had been a regular contact, but the substance of that consultation had not been sufficiently passed on due to a breakdown in communication within the group itself.

The ensuing discussions led to a legal resolution just before Christmas 2020, while moving the building away from the river required the resource and building consents to be revisited, which was completed in February 2021.

Only then was the WRPT and Fosters able to enter into negotiations on the construction price and the final plans, a process that culminated with the signing of the construction contract in August 2021. While that was ging on, the first of the neighbour engagements required by the resource consent got underway, with meetings held in May and August 2021.