Fate of Hamilton’s Founders Theatre hangs in the balance

Community groups in Hamilton are on tenter-hooks awaiting a decision from the Hamilton City Council on the future of the Founders Theatre.

Founders Theatre - modern.

Founders Theatre – modern. Photo: Supplied: Hamilton City Council

The building was closed in 2016 due to earthquake safety concerns.

Two-weeks ago a council committee voted in favour of demolishing the 60-year old building and that decision goes to the full council on Thursday morning.

It will either ratify it or give a proposal to save the building more time to raise money.

The fight to save the Founders is being led by Toti, Theatre of the Impossible, an arts and culture charitable trust.

It wants to convert Founders into a multi-purpose public space, to include galleries, community rooms, workshops and performance spaces.

The council wants to turn the site into a park and outdoor performance space.

Margaret Evans from Toti said it wanted to repurpose the Founders for the good of the community.

“There are dozens and dozens of community groups in this city now who haven’t got a place to be and that’s what the purpose will be, a community hub.”

The council said between $12 milllion and $20m needed to be spent to restore the building.

Evans, who is a former mayor of Hamilton, believed the figure was exaggerated.

“We’ve got an estimate that says between $7m and $10m could fix the whole thing up to a fine standard.”

She said money would not be an issue as it had financial backers, but Toti could not reveal who they were at this stage because until there was some certainty on the theatre’s future, they would not publicly commit.

“Every city fortunately in this country has philanthropists, benefactors, people who want to do good deeds. We are confident that we will get the support.”

She believed council should also contribute.

“Quite frankly there should be public money put into this project. It is ridiculous to suggest there shouldn’t be public money. This is a public service. This is for community groups, people who pay their rates.”

Evans said the saga of the Founders Theatre left her in a constant state of bewilderment.

“Here we are in a time of recycling and from whatever point of view, this is a solid building. We have shown council quite clearly from every professional perspective. This is a solid building so why bowl it.”

Neil Curgenven from Historic Places Aotearoa said Founders could become a much better asset for the city, if the council delayed a final decision on its future and took a punt on money being found.

”The council have demolition in their budget for 2023-24 financial period. That gives us from now to about July next year to come up with the money and the activity to take all of those fears away.”

He does not think Founders is ready to be scrapped.

“Rejuvenated the way in which we are looking at it it is certainly not past its used by date.”

Freelance journalist, video store owner and social commentator Richard Swainson has a soft spot for the Founders Theatre after years of attending shows there.

Ten years ago he organised a celebration marking 50-years since Louis Armstrong played there. Just one of many famous acts such as Lou Reed, Acker Bilk, the Kinks, the Beach Boys, Cilla Black, Howard Morrison who have.

Swainson said Founders is part of the cultural life of the city.

“Political rallies there, graduations ceremonies, not only professional stage productions but semi-professional and outright amateur productions there. Anybody who has lived in Hamilton for the last 60 years will have some connection to that theatre.”

Swainson has a theory on why council wants rid of the Founders.

“Perhaps it’s part of the Hamilton psyche to knock things down and to not preserve and respect our heritage.”

He said Founders was worth saving because it could be repurposed.

“I think time has passed with it being a continuing theatre but to repurpose it for community use is a viable plan.”

Swainson believed the council was at fault for letting Founders become run down.

“If they had properly maintained that building. If they had done their duty, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

A new $80 million theatre is currently under construction in Hamilton, but supporters of saving the Founders say there is room in the city for both, as they won’t be in competition.

The council’s community committee narrowly voted in favour of bowling the building, and whether the full council rubber-stamps that decision, or throws out a life-line the save the Founders, will be revealed on Thursday.

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