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’We don’t want to become a city of silos’

Hihiaua Cultural Centre - Photo: Hihiaua Cultural Centre

A Māori trust that's just been granted $1 million is inviting the Whangarei council to join forces to build a performing arts venue.

The Hihiaua Trust has been planning for nine years to build a harbourside cultural centre, and the project's a key element in the Northland Economic Action Plan.

It's now wondering if it could expand the project, and qualify for council funding, to meet the city's need for an auditorium.

The Trust was allocated $1m this month from the Provincial Growth Fund; it was granted $750,00 last November from Foundation North, and it's been promised half a million dollars by the Whangarei District Council.

The Trust is about to let the contracts for stage one of its long-awaited cultural centre, on its namesake peninsula, east of the Town Basin.

A Trust member, the master carver Te Warihi Hetaraka said that would involve renovating an old boatshed to create carving and weaving workshops, a waka shelter, and a launching gantry.

He said the entire project was about restoring a sense of cultural identity and giving Māori artists a place to work and exhibit.

"I see the place as developing an outlet for all our artists who go through the tertiary institutions," he said.

"They don't have a place to go to after they graduate, to practise their art and show it to the world.

But Mr Hetaraka said the trust also wanted the cultural centre to be useful to the wider Whangarei community.

Plans for stage two of the project show a soaring glass and timber auditorium that could seat 700, with a big stage that could open to the grassy outdoor spaces of the Hihiaua peninsula.

The Trust chair, Richard Drake said the performance space could be used for everything from kapa haka competitions, to mass carol services, conferences and civic welcomes.

"We've sorted out our priorities and reviewed what's available around the district, and come up with this exciting design which will meet our needs and some of the needs of the city and district," he said.

The Trust approached the council last week with its new proposition.

For more than a decade, the council's been budgeting $10m in its long term plan for a new performing arts venue.

This year, it has moved that project onto its priority list.

Cultural groups in Whangarei, and some councillors, have long complained that the city has a wealth of sports facilities but no venue fit for the New Zealand Symphony orchestra.

The Capitaine Bougainville theatre seats only about 350, and the town lost its concert hall in the early 1980's when the old Town Hall was demolished as an earthquake risk.

Mr Drake said the Hihiaua Trust wants the council to consider whether the Hihiaua auditorium could become the long-awaited new performing arts venue.

"We've always thought if we could make our facilities suitable for a wider range of activities and bring the community together, it would be good for all of us," he said.

"We don't want to become a city of silos."

The chair of the Whangarei Council's community development committee, Cherry Hermon says the Hihiaua project is beautiful and the council supports it.

But she said the question is whether the planned auditorium could be adapted to meet all the city's needs, including venue capable of hosting the NZSO, the ballet and other larger touring shows.

The architect of the Hihiaua cultural centre, Craig Moller, is also the designer of the Auckland Theatre company's new harbourside theatre.

He said the design of the Hihiaua auditorium could be tweaked, depending on what the community wants.

"I suspect you'd have to make some reasonable changes particularly around the back-of-house, and in terms of the Symphony, you'd need to look at the acoustics and how non-amplified music responds in that space," he said.

The Whangarei council will hear submissions next Friday, on what the community wants and needs in its new performing arts venue.

If it rejects the Hihiaua proposal for its new concert venue, and decides on a stand-alone project, the two ventures could end up competing for funds from charitable organisations.

Although the council has set aside $10m for the new venue, the cost is predicted to be at least twice that, and it's likely a community Trust will be formed to raise the remainder of the funds needed.

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