Wellington Scoop

Not needed? Not wanted?


by Lindsay Shelton
No one wants the Convention Centre, except city councillors and the Chamber of Commerce. (Have I forgotten anyone?) But everyone wants the Central Library, because it was the heart of Wellington, with a million visitors every year. A figure that the Convention Centre will never achieve.

The city council insists that construction must continue. Its latest excuse is that the government wants plenty of employment after the health crisis is over. It says this is the reason for spending $180m to complete a building which, in the post coronavirus era, will be charitably described as a white elephant.

The city council has done the right thing to ensure that the Town Hall and the St James are strengthened. Both are a central and beautiful part of Wellington’s heritage, and both have more than a century of strong community involvement and participation, which will continue when they are reopened. But the convention centre will offer nothing for the Wellington community and will give Wellington citizens nothing to participate in.

In recent days, Wellington.Scoop readers have been explaining why they are against the convention centre.

Ian Apperley:
it was dubious in the first place; now, no one will come to visit it. Can we turn it into a library or something? Yes?

Redirect the funds to fixing up Civic Square.

Dave Armstrong
… agree that people will want to meet, but not $200million want to meet. Even before COVID it was planned to lose $4million a year. Big conferences are on the way out, and are about as popular with millennials and Xers as Genesis. The barn underneath will also be hard to fill.

Trevor H
… convention centres are all about enhancing downtown property values. Their wider economic impact on communities is generally negative. This one if it goes ahead will be a drain on Wellington ratepayers for many years to come. After this pandemic subsides, we may well find ourselves with an economy half the size of that which we previously enjoyed. The Council needs to start basing its decisions on this new reality.

Peter Kerr
The number of jobs provided by both building and operating a convention centre will be pitifully few, and most will be poorly paid. Even the idea that the convention centre was for NZers is a fanciful one. Conventions are exclusive affairs, expensive to cater for, and vague as far as measurable results.
People will meet in person again, but a convention centre is lowly placed as a preferred location. If the need to convene is so important, take a look at how the Committee to oversee the Government’s Covid-19 response works. No air travel, low-carbon, low cost and with expensive catering avoided. When it’s finished – log out.

Turn it into apartments. We need more housing in Wellington and housing is a far greater priority than a “gathering centre” that nobody is going to use.

Kara Lipski
Adding my voice to the “dump the convention centre”. The WCC needs to concentrate on the basics and think about what is really needed in our city. Inner city housing would be a start for that space along with a park of native trees.

at the moment it’s just a half finished foundation. Difficult to see why its configuration couldn’t be changed now.

Keith Flinders
Isn’t it time … that WCC councillors start to look at the really bad financial situation this city is in, and ditch the unwelcome convention centre vanity project? Lateral thinking is required.

I think it’s time for the council to come clean as to why they’re so keen on continuing with the convention centre. Have they entered us into some sort of contractual obligation which would expose us to high penalties should it be stopped?

The convention centre contract must be one of the worst contracts the council has ever signed up to. Given the reluctance to stop it, there must be huge penalties for the council if they do. It would be interesting if the process could be exposed with an OIA. If it cannot be stopped, surely during this pause in construction the internal plans could be reconfigured for either a library/office space/apartments or anything other than what will only be a white elephant.

I would add my voice to the chorus of people advocating the Convention Centre be dumped so long as it is possible to save real money this way. To this end why not bring it all out in the open under the headline ‘Council halts Convention Centre development in light of Covid 19’ and challenge any litigants to follow through in the full glare of the public eye.

Though the council wants to believe that life will be the same after the pandemic is over, others are recognising that everything will be changing.

Courtney Johnston, the chief executive of Te Papa, writing in her blog after an international conference call, sees that the future for museums will change:

Everyone shares the sense that we will not be returning to bustling, hands-on, interactive museums – not for the next few years anyway, possibly not ever.

She quotes an American museum executive as suggesting

Secluded access to museums (very restricted numbers) may become a revenue line or membership benefit

And she touches on the issues to be resolved before any decision to reopen Te Papa to large numbers of people is made:

…can we do this safely for staff and for visitors? what level of experience will we feel satisfied having on offer? is there a point where the number of potential visitors does or does not warrant the expense of opening?

All are issues which connect with the dying concept of big international conventions. The Wellington Convention Centre was planned for gatherings of up to 2000 people (if you believe Willis Bond’s website) or up to 1500 (which is how the city council described it, an unexplained difference.) Either way, there must be a question about whether such large gatherings will be needed, even allowed, after the pandemic is over.

More than two years ago, Ian Apperley wrote that the number of conventions was falling and many convention centres were facing every-increasing losses. And he observed, accurately:

No matter how pretty the buildings are, they tend to be a poor fit in the urban environment. Large, imposing, pretty much dedicated to a single-use service, and mainly empty. We are promised a “café” on the ground-floor, pretty much the go to for every building approved in Wellington these days.

and more

One Millennial said to me “Why would I support a bricks and mortar centre when I can watch any convention that interests me live streaming on my phone or television from anywhere on earth, on any topic I like, for a fraction of a cost of attending the event?”

And that was two years ago.

It’s a tough subject for the council to confront. But it must reconsider how best to spend $180m. On a white elephant? Or on renewing a building with the unchallenged position of being the heart of the city. Come to think of it, it’s been more than three weeks since we’ve heard anything from the council about the Central Library. And that information – about the costs of strengthening the building – was curiously vague. Time for more information to be provided. And more reality to be faced.


  1. michael, 7. April 2020, 12:43

    If WCC are really continuing with the convention centre because the government wants employment after covid-19, then stop now, fast track the process for architects/engineers to produce plans for affordable apartments and social housing on the site, and then let Willis Bond build that. Not only will this provide desperately needed housing (which the government also wants and may assist with) but there will be more employment for workers, along with more people in the CBD and increased revenue from rates. I challenge Willis Bond to get behind this.

  2. Benny, 7. April 2020, 12:54

    One comment on the Convention Centre that often comes back is job creation and additional revenue streams. But jobs and revenue streams can both be created in countless other ways that deliver the basics right, and take us to the sustainable future that we have no other choice but to embrace. The $200M could be better used to help the city become the truly livable dream we all aspire for.

  3. Alana, 7. April 2020, 15:18

    It always appeared to be a make work project for the Council’s favourite developer, Willis Bond. (Are they still favoured with this Council and CEO?)
    The Central Library should have priority when the All Clear is given; the Convention Centre would be on everyone’s list for the back burner.
    If conventions do return, I’d think those attending from out of town would enjoy different venues rather than a closed centre environment. Hearing lectures in the Town Hall, the St James, the Michael Fowler Centre, the Opera House and other venues unique to Wellington would be more enjoyable than typical conference centre meeting rooms.

  4. Jeff, 7. April 2020, 15:44

    It’s been announced today that rates are to go up by 4.8% on average for the 2020/21 year. Absolutely tone deaf considering many ratepayers are doing it tough, either losing their jobs or having to get by on reduced incomes. Surely any funding for the Convention Centre for the 2020/21 year should at the very least be deferred, as there isn’t going to be any international travel anytime soon.

  5. Pauline, 7. April 2020, 17:06

    Back in February 2013 Patrick Smellie wrote a great article under the heading ‘convention centres’ dirty secret,’ in which Texan Heyward T Sanders highlighted how “limited and elusive” the returns from convention centre investments had proven to be in the USA, despite a kind of arms race among cities to build more of them. Then in February 2015 Professor Sanders spoke on Radio NZ about the economic benefit of the Auckland Convention Centre …. So what has changed!

  6. michael, 7. April 2020, 19:57

    Well the WCC can expect a ratepayers’ revolt if they think they can waste $200million on a convention centre and increase our rates by 4.8% to pay for their incompetence

  7. Pam, 7. April 2020, 20:30

    Most conferences in NZ can comfortably be housed in existing hotels. Even the Melbourne convention center prior to the current pandemic was frequently largely deserted. Expert advice re the current epidemic/pandemic is immunity may possibly be short lived, a vaccine is far from a proven option, given to date no one has successfully developed and marketed a vaccine against any corona virus. The WCC may be wise to heed the cautions of epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists. The days of large conferences are possibly over for the foreseeable future and the pandemic has increased the use of virtual technology.

  8. Ken Allen, 8. April 2020, 9:29

    It’s time for WCC to come clean on the convention centre. The business case no longer exists, the money is needed elsewhere, so what’s stopping them canning it? Facing a 4.8% rates rise, we now deserve to see what those contracts say. [via twitter]

  9. Brian Dawson, 8. April 2020, 9:32

    I suspect the real issue is the work is well underway and there will be construction contracts that would need to be paid out. That said, I doubt it’s too late to look at repurposing the building. You’re right, the business case won’t bounce back for a long time. [via twitter]

  10. Groggy, 8. April 2020, 11:18

    Even if there are penalties for stopping the build, it’s still better than sinking $200m into a useless empty building. And the penalties only need to be paid if Willis Bond enforce them. Repurpose the design, and apply some heat to Willis Bond.

  11. Steven Fenwick, 8. April 2020, 12:50

    Having returned to Wellington one year ago, Wellington is a hell hole. From burst sewerage and water pipes to crumbling buildings, it is amazing to me what people will put up with. Forget the Convention Centre, it’s all over post coronavirus. Stick to the basics this is not a time for Grand ideas.

  12. michael, 8. April 2020, 17:23

    Brian Dawson – once the movie museum was dumped the business case was never strong enough to go forward.

  13. Andrew II, 8. April 2020, 17:44

    It was all the Lestermentum Michael. Very hard to resist by the looks.

  14. Lindsay, 8. April 2020, 18:00

    Congratulations to Roger Walker for his constructive letter in the DomPost this morning. These are extracts:
    Our social infrastructure needs to respond quickly to provide much needed sociability once self-isolation is over. Our beloved library has a crucial part to play in our recovery …. The council now is unlikely to be able to afford either 100 per cent code remediation or a new build. The library could be reopened much earlier and at an affordable cost by settling on, say, two thirds of the earthquake code. Most of us probably spend most of our time in buildings of less than 100 per cent anyway.

  15. BrooklynBrooklyn, 9. April 2020, 9:31

    How much would it cost the council to pull the plug on the convention centre? There is obviously an extremely strong case for this project to be halted. Repurpose the site – build apartments; put solar panels on the roof, cover the facade in a vertical garden. If Willis Bond need something to keep busy with, have it be THAT.

    Also, the reopening of Central Library needs to be a priority. I strongly agree with Roger Walker – strengthen it as much as possible then let us back in; half of the buildings on Cuba St are yellow stickered but thousands of people (used to) shop or work there every day (myself included).

  16. Chris Horne, 9. April 2020, 20:34

    Compared with the last triennium’s city councillors who voted to fund this travesty, our recently elected city councillors are a more progressive, worldly-wise group. They must surely be having second thoughts about the wisdom of proceeding with spending many millions of our rates on this vanity project. Rate-payers will be delighted when councillors vote to abandon it and invest our $200 million rates money in eminently worthy projects such as:
    * upgrading our underground three-waters infrastructure; * bringing our Central Library up to 70% of code; * restoring Te Ngakau-Civic Square; * more social housing; * investing in sustained intensive control of pest plants and other ecological weeds in our Town Belt, scenic reserves, recreation reserves, Outer Green Belt and road reserves.
    The economic impact of Covid-19 should be the catalyst for the capital to become a truly progressive carbon-neutral city.

  17. Geoff Palmer, 11. April 2020, 8:31

    Councillor Iona Pannett was invited to speak at a Zoom meeting of the Mt Victoria Residents’ Association last Sunday. From the minutes:

    “We discussed the possibility of strengthening the existing library – Iona [Pannett] noted that is not in a good position given the possibility of future sea level rise – can we justify spending $100m to strengthen a building that might be threatened in 50 years?”

    Strangely, the Convention Centre just down the road and the Town Hall just across Civic Square do justify expenditure because, apparently, they will be immune to sea level rise.

  18. Chris Calvi-Freeman, 11. April 2020, 12:25

    Cllr Pannett also voted against the proposed new integrated ferry terminal at Kaiwharawhara for the same reason. My pleas (at a WCC committee meeting last year) for her to support the ferries as a more environmentally-sustainable alternative to air travel, failed to sway her.

  19. michael, 11. April 2020, 15:55

    If future sea-level rise is the reason for not strengthing the library, please explain how it is then ok for the Shelley Bay development to go ahead being right next to the sea, as well as all the new development on the wharf? Does not compute!!!
    Mind you, by the time the council gets around to making any decisions, the whole of Wellington CDB could be underwater.

  20. Polly, 16. April 2020, 11:21

    Agree with Michael re sea level rising in relation to Shelley Bay. I questioned this at the hearing when it was discussing extending the road out into Evans Bay – “what about the apartments,” and was told they would be built up on stilts…but no answer to my concerns about the cars floating around below.

  21. Bill Bennett, 22. April 2020, 9:36

    Given that travelling long haul to convention centres is likely to go the way of hansom cabs and penny farthing bikes, can we please turn the fire-damaged Auckland Sky Centre into a giant 7 day a week CBD farmer’s market? [via twitter]