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New Waikato Regional Theatre Preferred Site Announced 12 July, 2017

The recommended location for the new Waikato Regional Theatre has been announced as the Hamilton Hotel site on Victoria St, Hamilton, and the community’s feedback on this is being sought.

The privately-owned site currently has a range of restaurants and bars and is bordered by Embassy Park (with the Riff Raff statue) on one side and Sapper Moore-Jones Place (formerly Marlborough Pl) on the other, and runs down to the river. A new theatre development would look to restore the facade of the old Hamilton Hotel, which is recognised as a heritage building. 

Momentum Waikato Community Foundation Chair Leonard Gardner and Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel Chair Dr Julian Elder briefed Hamilton City Council’s mayor and councillors today (July 12) about the recommended site. Says Mr Gardner “This location will transform the region and city through recognising history, revitalising the CBD, supporting hospitality offerings, and enhancing connection with the Waikato River.”

Momentum Waikato has joined with Hamilton City Council to fund the work to reach recommendations on the best options to replace the aging Founders Theatre, closed last year due to safety concerns. Momentum Waikato and its community trust partners contributed $100,000 to match Hamilton City Council’s $100,000 contribution for the study 

Momentum Waikato then appointed the independent Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel to manage a robust process to determine optimum theatre location, configuration, design, and the range of expected community benefits of a new theatre.

Late last year the panel engaged international theatre design consultancy Charcoalblue to carry out the work. Dr Elder says Charcoalblue has spent several months talking with stakeholders and user groups throughout the region and investigating possible locations around Hamilton City, owned by the Council or private landholders, to make its recommendation on location and concept.

The concept design for the site and business case for the theatre will be formally presented to Hamilton City Council at its 24 August meeting and will then go out to public consultation.

Momentum Waikato is encouraging the community to offer feedback on the recommended site, and this can be done either via Momentum Waikato or via the public consultation process from late August. Members of the public are also welcome to sign up for regular updates from Momentum Waikato.

Hamilton City Council welcomes recommended locatio 

Sean Murray, Hamilton City Council’s General Manager Venues, Tourism, and Major Events Group, welcomed the announcement as a positive step forward for the project. Mr Murray is also the Council’s representative on the theatre panel.

“We’re excited and pleased Momentum Waikato and Charcoalblue are recommending a site in the central city,” Mr Murray says.

Mr Murray says if the construction of the new theatre goes ahead on the Hamilton Hotel site, it will contribute to some of the Council’s strategic aims for the city – particularly the River Plan and the Central City Transformation Plan.

“We like the idea that the theatre could be accessed from the river,” he says. “Developing a new theatre on that site puts it right in the heart of the city’s hospitality district, as well as the city’s creative district, with Waikato Museum, The Meteor and Embassy Park all close by.

“The Hamilton Hotel is an important heritage building for the city and this project, if it proceeds, would give it a fantastic new lease on life and add richly to its history and prominence.”

Mr Murray says although the Council has committed, in principle, $30 million to the project, there is a lot more work to be done before the project commences.

The Hamilton Hotel site is owned by the Plaw family and has a long and strong arts and theatre history. Says spokesperson Mitch Plaw: “We are fully supportive of the recommended new theatre location and look forward to working with the theatre project team to create the best outcome for the Waikato region and Hamilton CBD.”

Other sites considered by Charcoalblue

Among the approximately 25 sites considered by Charcoalblue were Grantham St, Sonning Carpark (on River Rd) and Garden Place. The existing Founders site was carefully considered, as was the idea of utilising land at the University of Waikato, but the Hamilton Hotel site was deemed better able to achieve the goals of the community.

Dr Elder says the Waikato Regional Theatre Governance Panel promised to deliver on the community’s behalf a robust process seeking a new theatre site, and he believes this has been achieved.

As well as its in-depth discussions with stakeholders, Charcoalblue has been working with architects, engineers and arts advisers to create the recommendation for Phase One – the master plan, cost estimate and build-plan for a new theatre, Dr Elder says.

“We’re now working with Charcoalblue on the finer details of how this theatre might look, right down to parking, accessibility, and dealing with equipment deliveries that you’d expect for a theatre site. Planning and heritage considerations for the site have been worked through, and we are confident we can work through these with Hamilton City Council.”

The Waikato Regional Theatre Location Study Report report compiled by Charcoalblue, with rankings of all the sites considered, is available on the Momentum Waikato website.

Theatre to be head tenant in creative precinct

Mr Gardner says the Waikato Regional Theatre is planned to be the head tenant in a “creative precinct”.  The hope is the theatre project will revitalise the properties around the theatre site which are primarily historic in nature. “These properties will provide an ideal home for creative industry to flourish.”

He says Momentum Waikato’s role is to convene, connect and align generous people in the Waikato to create a better Waikato for everyone, forever - linking major projects with strategic philanthropy. “This is a generational opportunity to create a significant community asset for our wider region – not just Hamilton – and, for the sake of the future generations, we need to make sure we do it well.”

Momentum Waikato was approached last year by a number of generous individuals and organisations interested in giving through Momentum Waikato to contribute to a new theatre. “We have several generous families, individual donors and local trusts who have supported us so far, and we are grateful to have them all on this journey with us,” Mr Gardner says. 

He says there are a number of generous individuals and organisations keen to make the theatre a reality, but the project requires the entire community to be generous and work together.  “Momentum Waikato will be looking for generous people willing to invest in future generations to get the project across the line,” he says 

“Just like members of the Waikato community contributed capital to build Founders Theatre more than 50 years ago, it’s important we work with the community again to take responsibility for delivering a world-class theatre that will help transform the urban fabric of the city and enhance other plans for the city and the river,” Mr Gardner says.

Momentum Waikato will be making it easy for everyone in the region to be generous and to support the project, he says.

EXISTING SITE: The Hamilton Hotel site, owned by the Plaw family, is the recommended site for the Waikato Regional Theatre. A new theatre development would look to restore the facade of the old Hamilton Hotel which is recognised as a heritage building.

LEONARD GARDNER: The Chair of Momentum Waikato, the community foundation that is working with the Hamilton City Council to fund the work to reach recommendations on the best options to replace the aging Founders Theatre. 


History of the site


The Waikato River bank area had been populated for at least 700 years by Māori. The river provided physical and spiritual sustenance for large populations. Throughout that time, it was a source of food, including eels, fish and plants. It was also an important waka route. A well- known saying about the Waikato River uses taniwha as a metaphor for chiefs: ‘Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha’. (Waikato of a hundred taniwha, on every bend a taniwha). This saying attributes the power and prestige of the Waikato tribes to that of the river. 

The New Zealand Settlements Act in 1863 authorised the confiscation of land (raupatu) belonging to any tribe who were judged to have rebelled against the British Queen’s authority. The European settlement of Hamilton (Kirikiriroa) was formally established in August 1864. In the wars that followed, some 4,869 sq km of Māori land was confiscated. 

Hotel Establishment

The first hotel on the corner site was built in 1865 (in the first year of European settlement on the west bank) and burnt to the ground in 1898. It was rebuilt.

1922 - Sapper Horace Moore-Jones

An internationally renowned artist who drew maps for military purposes and produced a large number of water colours depicting the Gallipoli landscape (most remain in Australian collections). After the war, he taught art at Hamilton High School. He died from burns sustained while saving others from the second major fire at the Hamilton Hotel in 1922. A memorial to commemorate him was unveiled in 2015 directly outside the site, and the street Marlborough Place was renamed to Sapper Moore-Jones Place.

1953 - Queen Elizabeth II

The Queen and Prince Philip stayed here during the 1953 tour of New Zealand. A special suite was built for the occasion, and is still in place. The Theatre Royal/Embassy Theatre

Opened in 1915. The Theatre Royal could hold 1,200 people and hosted most major touring and local stage productions from 1915 to 1967. In the early 1950s the theatre was taken over by Kerridge Odeon and its name changed to Embassy Theatre. In 1953 alterations were made to the theatre. Interior features were hidden behind new walls or painted black. The Royal/Embassy operated as a theatre and cinema until 1989 when the building was put up for sale. Attempts were made by various groups to have the theatre restored to its original glory but despite this the theatre was demolished in 1994.

1960s - Richard O’Brien

Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O’Brien formulated ideas for the famous cult classic musical when he was working in the Embassy Theatre. A statue of character Riff Raff and themed park has been established over the past decade to acknowledge O’Brien’s connection with the city.

1982-1994 - The Centre for Contemporary Art (CFCA)

The first permanent home for the Chartwell Collection (Rob Gardener) was in the Hamilton Hotel building. The CFCA was way ahead of its time and rapidly became a site for art discourse in New Zealand, with its programme of non-commercial New Zealand and Australian exhibitions. It provided a national alternative art space and was committed to growing a local audience for contemporary art. Over 13 years, approximately 150 exhibitions were held at the gallery.

1980s - Left Bank Theatre

The front house was originally built as the maids’ quarters for staff at the hotel. It was later converted to become what was the Hamilton Theatre, one of the first performance halls in the city. During the 1980s it operated as the Left Bank Theatre. This was a formative time and place for the development of the theatre scene in Hamilton. Theatrevue and Slip of the Tongue theatre companies formed and worked there and there was always a full season of children’s theatre during school holidays. 

About Momentum Waikato

Momentum Waikato Community Foundation has been created to convene and connect generous people in the Waikato with intergenerational projects of significance that meet both the current and future needs of our community.

The Foundation was given a long-term loan of $10m from WEL Energy Trust to begin its important work. The fund has been prudently invested and will continue to grow with the help of independent experts, and then distributed within the Waikato region.

Momentum Waikato’s professional investment and granting services for donors who want to support Waikato causes and organisations, are done with no fees charged to donors. The foundation’s no-fee service is unique among all community foundations in New Zealand.

For more information visit

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