Wellington Scoop

Kerry Prendergast: a convention centre with no conventions


Former mayor Kerry Prendergast has added her voice to the many who are challenging the Wellington City Council’s plan to spend $180m building a convention centre opposite Te Papa.

In the DomPost yesterday she wrote:

Contracts already in place cannot be stopped but at least the Convention Centre should be repurposed – a 600-seat venue we currently lack, or as a new library perhaps? Conference business will take years to rebuild, if it ever does for international conventions.

There was more:

Borrowing for projects should be only for those that future generations will also use and enjoy. Borrowing to just move us through this current crisis is completely selfish towards our children and grandchildren. Rates should not be held lower just by pushing the cost into the future. Rates should be held – they could even be cut – by removing all non-important spending.

The convention centre certainly fits the category of non-important spending. Except that its construction will provide employment for Willis Bond and its workers. However, spending $180m for a building that will no longer be relevant for its original purpose seems remarkably strange behaviour for a council that claims it is trying to keep the next rates increase under control. (A council that continues to insist another rates increase is necessary.)

PCGM wrote about the convention centre a few days ago.

An entirely stupid idea whose time has passed … It will serve no useful purpose and will be a burden on ratepayers for aeons to come. But hey – let’s not be negative. If we really want some employment benefit out of this misbegotten disaster of a project, our suggestion is to go ahead and build it to keep the tradies occupied, then burn it down on the day it opens – and collect the insurance cheque.

On eyeofthefish, Leviathan had a more sombre view:

My guess would be a very simple one: that the WCC signed a contract with the developer / builder, and the project would have massive costs if they were to break the contract. A contract is a legal document, holding both parties to account, and it is deliberately not something that either side can back out of easily. So I think that the building will continue to go ahead – this is no time to be discussing whether or not it is a good idea or indeed the right idea.

Quite possibly though, the scope of what goes into the building may be up for later review – conceivably a Library could work well there, next to the Museum, but equally, Council may have to think carefully about the likelihood of people ever wanting to sit in a closed room with hundreds or thousands of other people, breathing in their coughs, farts and sneezes, like we used to. Even if you apply social distancing in a convention, then the capacity of the room becomes a half or a quarter of what it once was. The viability of any conference thereafter becomes null and void…

But “a later review” – after the council has spent $180m – will be too late. Reconfiguring the building after it’s completed will be too late. Now is indeed the time to discuss whether or not a convention centre with a capacity of 2000 people is a good idea, and now is the time to accept that the viability of conventions has become null and void.

Not needed? Not wanted?


  1. Lindsay, 19. April 2020, 12:44

    Willis Bond is a good citizen, a leading construction company that’s been responsible for many new buildings in the CBD. If the city council is too distracted or too nervous to initiate a discussion, then Willis Bond should make the first move – to suggest reconfiguring the convention centre for real community needs, if not to cancel the contract altogether.

  2. Alana, 19. April 2020, 12:56

    A very pragmatic suggestion. Willis Bond has been enabled to lease masses of waterfront land – owned by the citizens of Wellington – for new projects, and with this crisis they have a chance to ‘pay back’ some of the rewards that have come their way. A new library is needed, not a convention centre.

  3. michael, 19. April 2020, 14:29

    Why not delay all construction on the site, fast track resource consent to repurpose it into a mixture of affordable high rise and social housing, and then let Willis Bond build it. This will bring more people into the CBD to support local businesses, provide permanent regular income for WCC, and provide much needed housing. Win-win for everyone. I challenge Willis Bond to support this in the best interests of the city.

  4. Andrew, 19. April 2020, 16:47

    Willis Bond could now see the convention centre construction as a virtual bail out, so may be reluctant to initiate any dialogue.

  5. Trish, 19. April 2020, 20:05

    During the global financial crisis many building projects were mothballed with their foundations poking out of the ground. The (literally) sunk costs were saved and options for redesigning the superstructure preserved. The Council needs to bang the convention centre on the head now.
    Social housing in the CBD could be funded by the Government to create employment without affecting our rates. If the convention centre cannot be redesigned, the empty carpark behind the abandoned Readings Centre, just across the road, would be a good place to start.

  6. Hel, 19. April 2020, 20:07

    The proposition that there will be no conferences in the future is the same as suggesting there will be no professional sport, no cruises and we may as well repurpose our airports and stadiums while we are at it. This is just ridiculous speculation and there is as much chance that the world will not be that different post Covid-19 than there is that there will be some new world order.

  7. Graham, 20. April 2020, 9:18

    @Hel – Except that most economists agree that (even before Covid-19) there were not enough conferences to provide a positive ROI for almost any convention centre. Like so many “think big” projects, they suffer an optimism bias: “build it and they will come”. Worse than that, the people who pay for it (all ratepayers) are not the same people who benefit – the benefits are not equally distributed.

  8. Elsa, 20. April 2020, 10:01

    Totally agree with Helen – there are millions of dollars being invested in convention centre infrastructure all around the world with massive venues currently being built in Macau, the UK, Europe and the USA. All of them much larger than the WCEC. Conferences will take place again, it may take up to two years for the industry to be where it was before Covid-19 but it will get there and then our centre will be ready. The positive impact of hosting conferences in cities / countries far outweigh the positive impacts of yet another library.

  9. Keith Flinders, 20. April 2020, 10:31

    Hel: Of course you are correct in that conferences will not die out completely, but the question for the WCC is, and always was, how many could Wellington expect to host annually. We have never seen these figures, nor been privy to the business case that surrounds this white elephant of a project.

    One aspect I broached with Cr Foster last year was that we get this conference centre but where do the attending delegates stay, as Wellington is short of hotel rooms. His reply was “we build the convention centre and hoteliers will flock to provide the accommodation.” I have yet to see any plans announced for other than a couple of small hotels since that discussion. Were we to see a convention every week, then hoteliers would be keen to be part of that action. If we were to get one convention every other week the interest would be far less so. A convention every month or so would not be even considered a viable option to provide accommodation for, unless there are to be other magnets to draw in visitors to Wellington.

    A stupid and ill considered project from the outset, made by people with no apparent commercial skills, seemingly now supported by those newly elected last year.

    The long term financial impact of the COVID 19 situation has yet to be realised by the mayor and his disunited gaggle of councillors.

  10. Tony Jansen, 20. April 2020, 10:49

    I’d be interested if anyone can name one convention centre in Australasia that runs at a profit. They are 20th century dinosaurs. I was flabbergasted that our councillors voted unanimously for this sink hole for ratepayers’ money, especially once the Movie Museum pulled out. When that happened, there was not even a thread of a business case for this project. The only people who will benefit are the developers, who have received favourable treatment from the WCC for many years.

  11. Lindsay, 20. April 2020, 11:17

    Elsa. You should consider the relative values for Wellington citizens. The Central Library was used by a million of us every year. A convention centre will be used by almost none of us… And most of the time it’ll be empty – there’s no such thing as nonstop conferences.

  12. Peter, 20. April 2020, 11:25

    Elsa, I don’t know if you’ve been keeping up, but we don’t even have a proper library at the moment.

  13. Cheval Ready, 20. April 2020, 12:48

    For those struggling to comprehend the desire to forge ahead with the conference centre, I propose we try look at it from the council’s view. A conference would typically involve listening to someone talk for days, producing and achieving little if anything and probably a free lunch. Now relate that to the WCC and that mirrors a typical day/week even year. So in that respect they probably can’t understand the opposition.

  14. PCGM, 20. April 2020, 13:07

    Keith Flinders – The business case for the convention centre is in fact online and can be found here.

  15. Tony Corlett, 20. April 2020, 16:08

    I believe Hamilton’s Claudelands Convention Centre cost about $120million, and has never made enough income to pay the interest on the money borrowed to build it. As Tony Jansen notes above. there are no profitable convention centres in Australasia, and you can probably add sports stadiums to that also. Unlike Hamilton, we dodged a bullet with the avaricious Australian Supercar V8 promoters. We should do the same with another white elephant, the Wellington convention centre.

  16. Concerned Wellingtonian, 21. April 2020, 9:42

    It was worrying enough that the section on Future Demand in the “Business Case” which surfaced two years ago started by saying that the outlook “for business events for New Zealand is positive when you look at how business events have grown internationally and in particular the growth that Australia and Asia have seen in this market.” This was wishful blurb at the time and simply must now be re-appraised by the Wellington City Council.

  17. Iona Pannett, 21. April 2020, 10:51

    The contracts have been signed and the piles put in. We may get some traffic from Australia but it was always intended to be a primarily domestic venue. Not sure it is a disaster … people will continue to meet but would of course prefer that we meet distantly where possible. Waiting on a response to re-purpose the space. [via twitter]

  18. Dave Armstrong, 21. April 2020, 10:52

    I guess repurposing is better than being idle. Here’s hoping for more robust business cases in the future. [via twitter]

  19. Seamonkey Madness, 21. April 2020, 11:54

    The business case is an absolute, self-serving joke of a document, which in no way reflects what the future of the convention sector is/will be. It even predicts that it will eventually earn enough money to be self-sustaining. Seinfeld couldn’t make this stuff up.

  20. Brian Dawson, 21. April 2020, 12:32

    The convention centre business case made some sense three years ago but not now. The problem with repurposing it for the library is convincing people to let go of the current building in Civic Square. [via twitter]

  21. michael, 21. April 2020, 12:37

    Councillor Pannett, following are extracts from the second Business Case which does not support your claim about a “primarily domestic” venue:

    Once fully operational, the new facilities will target and cater for the high end of the MICE market, seeking to attract large, international events new to NZ … particularly attracting conferences with delegates attending from Australia and Asia … While the new facilities will seek firstly to attract large international events, they will also need to capture a significant portion of the top end of the domestic event market in order to fill their overall event calendar.

  22. Mongrel, 21. April 2020, 12:58

    I’m having a hard time believing the conference centre was primarily designed as a domestic venue. You have competing spaces in Auckland and Christchurch. How high is the demand for large nz based conferences? If it is repurposed as a library, the existing library could be mothballed until a strengthening plan was developed, and then repurposed as something else.

  23. Andrew, 21. April 2020, 12:58

    Why would having the library in the convention centre location be better than having it in Civic Square? The convention centre is less central than Civic Square, making it harder to use the library during lunch breaks. Also, the convention centre building will not be ready for 4 years. We have a purpose-built library building already, which just needs fixing.
    Even though we now have one councillor giving an indication of the path forward and the decision making behind it, there’s still no mention of the Central Library in any way being a priority. No mention of it at all for that matter. What is the plan for the library and why is its repair not one of the “shovel ready” projects put forward to the government?

  24. michael, 21. April 2020, 13:03

    Brian, the Library is an iconic award winning well loved Wellington building which should remain in Civic Square. The Convention Centre should not be used as an excuse to get rid of the library building. As only the foundations have been done, the convention centre could be repurposed into affordable high rise housing, if only there was a will to do so from all sides.

  25. michael, 21. April 2020, 16:16

    If WCC do not want to repurpose the Convention Centre as affordable housing, here’s another idea. Why not use it as council offices instead of paying high rents on the Terrace. They also could provide meeting rooms and facilities for many of the NFP organisations that struggle to find premises. At least that would be a worthwhile purpose.

  26. Guy M, 28. April 2020, 19:11

    Tony Corlett – it’s interesting that you bring up the Claudelands Convention/ Events Centre, situated just across the river and down the road from Hamilton. I’d hesitate to say it is IN Hamilton, as the convenor provided taxis to get there.

    It doesn’t surprise me it is a loss-maker as it is ugly, poorly designed, and doesn’t fit in to the town as a piece of the urban landscape. It is surrounded by car parking, and feels like it is a real out of town thing. Possibly it is there so that it can be next to stock yards for cattle or sheep, all of which means that it is not actually a good comparison with Wellington’s proposed Centre. I wouldn’t plan to bring conference attendees there unless they were farmers.